The Pittsburgh Steelers' Defensive Depth Chart
Most teams coming of a 9-7 season in which they missed the playoffs would have plenty of position battles entering training camp.
The Steelers are not one of these teams. Despite underachieving last season, the lineup is unlikely to have any major shakeups. However, that does not mean there will not be new faces contributing in 2010.
Pittsburgh is a very deep team after signing wide receivers, Antwaan Randle El and Arnaz Battle, offensive tackle, Jonathan Scott, linebacker, Larry Foote, and safety, Will Allen. In addition to the free agents, the Steelers drafted 10 rookies who will be vying for roster spots.
Defensively, Pittsburgh will also see the return of two of their best players, Aaron Smith and Troy Polamalu. These two will be welcome additions after they struggled to protect fourth quarter leads last season.
The Steelers also welcomed back cornerback Bryant McFadden, who they acquired in a draft day trade with the Arizona Cardinals.
The Steelers experienced defense has potential to return to excellence this season with the new additions. While there may not be major changes at the starting positions, there are plenty of opportunities for players to take on key roles as backups.
Brett Keisel and Smith are entrenched as starters on the defensive line.
Smith will be returning after missing much of the 2009 season with a shoulder injury, but will be welcomed back with open arms as he is one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the league.
His presence alone will improve the Steelers run defense.
Playing opposite Smith is Keisel. While not at the level of Smith, Keisel has established himself as a fine defensive end. He is very athletic and has a pass rushing aspect to his game.
Both Smith and Keisel will be able to stay fresh throughout the season as Ziggy Hood will see an increased role this season.
As the Steelers first round selection in 2009, Hood only saw limited playing time as rookie. However, his play improved, evident by his first career sack in week 16 against the Ravens.
Hood will not challenge for a starting spot this season, but will see significant action as the first defensive end off the bench.
Veteran Nick Eason will battle with second-year player Sonny Harris and rookie Doug Worthington for the fourth spot on the depth chart.
The Steelers have a strong veteran presence at defensive tackle.
Casey Hampton is still an upper echelon defensive tackle and just signed a contract extension this offseason.
As a massive body in the center of Pittsburgh’s defense, Hampton still has the ability to be a dominant run stopper. However, his size has now limited him to being a two-down player.
Hampton is never on the field in passing situations and his backup, Chris Hoke, often spells him.
Hoke typically does not miss a beat when he is in the lineup. He is solid at his job, but unlike Hampton, does not have the potential to take over a game. Hoke is also less likely to see the double teams that Hampton does.
Between the two, the Steelers are more than set for the present at defensive tackle. It is unlikely that any young player will make the final roster, meaning the Steelers will most likely carry two defensive tackles.
One of the most intriguing camp battles may be at inside linebacker. James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons, and Larry Foote will be competing for two spots.
Timmons was Mike Tomlin’s first draft selection as head coach and was basically handed the starting job last season, as the team released Foote.
However, now Foote is back with the Steelers and he will have the opportunity to return to the starting lineup.
The most logical linebacker on the way out would be Farrior. He is the oldest player on the team and looked to have lost a step or two last season.
Here is the problem, Foote is a better fit for the “mack” linebacker position, where Timmons is currently starting.
Farrior plays the “buck” position, in which he covers the tight ends and running backs. Ideally, as the most athletic linebacker on the roster, Timmons should be able to take on this role and Foote will return to his old starting job.
However, there are some questions as to whether or not Timmons can handle that role.
Farrior and Timmons will probably start the season, but if Farrior shows more signs of slowing down, Foote should enter the starting lineup.
The Steelers may also go back to 2008 and use Foote on first and second down and bring Timmons in on passing situations.
This one is too early to call.
Also, keep an eye on rookie Stevenson Sylvester. The fifth round selection is a solid all-around linebacker who could eventually develop into a starter.
He will have to show something in the preseason if he wants to make the roster over Keyaron Fox.
As unsettled as it is on the inside, that is how set in stone the starters at outside linebacker are.
The Steelers have two Pro Bowlers, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, starting. This tandem is one of the most ferocious pass rushing duos in the league.
The battle as the top backup to these two will likely come from two rookies.
Jason Worilds, the Steelers second round selection, is a very athletic defensive end trying to make the transition to outside linebacker. Not overly productive at Virginia Tech, Worilds was held back by injuries.
Worilds speed and explosiveness is in the mold of players that Tomlin likes. He is a fit to play behind Harrison, where his primary job is to rush the passer.
Fourth round selection, Thaddeus Gibson, is more in the Steelers traditional mold at outside linebacker. He is a late round ‘tweener who is a tough, physical player who can rush the passer.
The Steelers have loved Gibson since Dick LeBeau and Keith Butler saw Gibson at his Pro Day. The coaches were impressed with the way he improved over the course of the season.
Gibson will probably start behind Woodley, where he will have to not only rush the passer, but also take on a responsibility in pass coverage.
Both rookies will not get an opportunity though. One will have to establish himself as a viable option as the backup outside linebacker. If not, the Steelers will have to depend on Timmons shifting to the outside in case of injury.
After the first two days of the draft went by without the Steelers selecting a cornerback, there was a lot of concern in Pittsburgh. Then they made a trade to re-acquire McFadden.
McFadden was a successful cornerback in the Steelers defense and has Super Bowl experience.
He will instantly enter the starting lineup along with Ike Taylor and it is unlikely that they will be challenged by any of the other cornerbacks on the roster.
William Gay, after struggling last season in a starter’s role, will likely open the season as the nickel back. This is the role that Gay is best suited for and he should be much more successful here.
Second-year players Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett will have the opportunity to challenge for playing time.
Lewis is the player most likely to step up. At 6-0 208 pounds, Lewis has the size and speed to be a starting cornerback in the league. He did not have the opportunity to showcase his skills last season due to injury.
Lewis also fits the physical mold that the Steelers expect from their cornerbacks. His potential is exciting, but the Steelers tend to stick with their veterans until their young players are more than ready to enter the starting lineup.
Ryan Clark should be the happiest player on the Steelers roster with the return of Polamalu to the lineup. As much as he struggled last season after Polamalu was injured, that is how good he is when Polamalu is on the field.
Clark’s solid play allows Polamalu to run around the field and freelance as he makes the spectacular play.
Polamalu’s presence on the field will make the entire defense better. The pass defense will improve because of his ability to cover so much of the field and the run defense will improve with his play near the line of scrimmage. There is no other play in the NFL like him.
Allen will battle with Ryan Mundy as the top safety backup.
Allen is a strong special teams player with the ability to play safety and with 26 games of starting experience, he may have the edge over Mundy.
Mundy had his first NFL experience last season and showed the potential to be a physical presence on the field. He still has room to improve, but does have a strong football sense and should get better with experience.
Both players will only see limited action this season.
The biggest position battle on the defensive side of the ball will be at inside linebacker.
Farrior, Timmons, and Foote all have unique skill sets, but at this point of their respective career’s, none is a complete player. This will be one to watch throughout the entire season.
The Steelers will also have a lot of competition at backup cornerback, where they have Gay battling with the young players trying to establish themselves in this league.
Beyond these two positions, the rest of the defense should be set and ready to make a return to being one of the league’s elite defensive units.
Later this week I will examine the Steelers offensive depth chart.