2011 NFL Draft Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers Defense

Chris Gazze@ChrisG_PITCorrespondent IApril 3, 2011

2011 NFL Draft Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers Defense

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    Last week I broke down the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive draft needs. Yet again, the Steelers need help along their offensive line and could use improved depth at tight end and running back.

    The Steelers defense is still in good shape, but they must re-sign cornerback Ike Taylor once a CBA is reached. Even with Taylor in play, Pittsburgh will need to upgrade their defensive backfield.

    Another area of concern is the age of the defense with long-time starters Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, James Farrior and James Harrison all another year older. With so many important pieces to one of the best defenses in the league on the downside of their careers, it is necessary that Pittsburgh adds youth.

    Last year, the Steelers did find a couple of potential keepers in linebackers Jason Worilds and Stevenson Sylvester, but those are only two potential future starters, if they develop.

    Pittsburgh wins with great defense and to continue to do so, they must reload their defense. They cannot wait until the aging pieces fall apart leaving gaping holes. Do not be surprised if the Steelers try to make the strongest unit of their team even strong with this year’s draft.

    Each position on defense will be analyzed and I will rate the draft need on a 1-10 scale with a “1” meaning that there is no need, a “5” meaning more quality depth is needed at the position, and “10” meaning there is an immediate need to upgrade the position. Here are the defensive needs:

Nose Tackle

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    Casey Hampton is coming off of a solid season, but the 33 year old is limited as a two down player.

    Top backup Chris Hoke is a year older than Hampton and while still effective, does not have many years left.

    The Steelers defense is centered around its playmakers at linebacker, but it is the defensive line, particularly the nose tackle, that allows those players to roam free.

    Last year Pittsburgh passed up the opportunity to draft a nose tackle in the early rounds so it would not be very surprising if they looked in this direction come draft weekend. Actually, they are close to the point where drafting a nose tackle for the future is necessary.

    Pittsburgh won’t be without options in 2011. The hottest name right now is Phil Taylor of Baylor.

    Standing at just over 6-3 and weighing 334 pounds, Taylor would have a year to sit behind Hampton to adjust to the NFL, but could be the centerpiece for the Steelers defensive line for years to come. However, some off the field concerns may make the Steelers steer clear.

    Stephen Paea of Oregon State is an interesting prospect who has the talent to fit on any defensive line, but maybe not necessarily at nose tackle for the Steelers, weighing in at just over 300 pounds.

    A realistic late option would be Jerrell Powell from Ole Miss. He is almost 6-2 and 335 pounds, a perfect size to anchor the Steelers offensive line and could fall to the third round, meaning Pittsburgh would not have to spend a premium draft pick on the position.


Defensive End

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    Entering his second season, Ziggy Hood had some pressure to alleviate the load off of Aaron Smith. After a stellar training camp, Hood looked to be ready for the increased role. However, his efforts in practice did not translate to the field.

    Hood appeared to be a two-year project until he was thrust into the starting role after a season ending injury to Smith.

    Though he started off slow, Hood began to get better each week, putting on dominant performances down the stretch of the season and into the playoffs.

    Whether Hood starts or not next season does not matter, but it is clear that he is ready to when called upon.

    That solves one defensive end spot, but the other, filled by Brett Keisel, is in need of a future starter.

    As with nose tackle, the Steelers do not have an immediate need at defensive end, but are in a position to draft a future starter.

    Two potential first rounders, Cameron Jordan of California and J.J. Watt of Wisconsin, will likely be gone by the time the Steelers draft. The Steelers have expressed interest in Cameron Heyward of Ohio State, who will likely be available at the 31st selection.

    Pittsburgh could also look at Pitt product Jabaal Sheard in the middle rounds with the intention of having him bulk up so he can play end in a 3-4 system.


Inside Linebacker

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    Lawrence Timmons had a breakout season last year. He was a tackling machine and had a lot of responsibilities in pass coverage.

    Timmons' athleticism and increased responsibility allowed James Farrior to adjust his role which he was much more successful in. In fact, Farrior played at a near team MVP level.

    Behind the starters, the Steelers have Larry Foote who is an ideal stopgap player once Farrior hangs them up.

    Foote could possibly fill the starting role while last year’s sleeper, Stevenson Sylvester, continues to develop.

    Sylvester had an outstanding season playing on special teams and showed some explosive abilities playing the base defense during the preseason.

    Ideally, Sylvester will develop this season and be ready to enter a starting role by his third year. If the Steelers do not have confidence in his ability to start, then an inside linebacker will be a priority in the draft.

    With Timmons having the ability to make plays all over the field, the Steelers could use a disciplined run stopper to play alongside him.

    Without a true blue chipper at the position, look for the Steelers to wait until the mid-to-later rounds before looking for a linebacker.


Outside Linebacker

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    Pittsburgh just may have the best pass rushing duo with James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.

    Harrison played near an MVP level this season and Woodley had yet another very good season and is likely to get a big contract from the Steelers.

    Pittsburgh did draft two outside linebackers last year in Jason Worilds and Thaddeus Gibson, but lost Gibson to San Fransisco.

    That leaves Worlids, who shined on special teams and flashed his pass rushing ability in limited action. His role may be increased this year with Harrison having offseason back surgery.

    That still leaves the Steelers in position to add depth to the position.

    The Steelers could look to Pitt for potential depth here with Sheard and Greg Romeus. Both players are pass rushing specialists and could be available in the third round or later. There are a number of other undersized defensive ends who could also be later round options.



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    Besides Ike Taylor, who will be a free agent, the Steelers do not have a starting caliber cornerback.

    While the Steelers have big needs along the offensive line, they have also proved that they can win with a below average line. Not so without good play from their cornerbacks.

    Besides Taylor, William Gay is also a free agent and the Steelers have no true prospects who can step in as a starter next season. There is Keenan Lewis who possesses all of the physical tools, but they have not translated.

    A wildcard is Crezdon Butler, who got rave reviews last season, but was not an active member of the roster.

    Quite simply put, the Steelers need a blue chip cornerback.

    With only two elite corners in the draft, Pittsburgh will have to wait for the second level talent at the end of the first round.

    The two top names who could be available are Brandon Harris from Miami and Aaron Williams from Texas.

    Harris is rather short, at just under 5-10, and has not been much of a playmaker with only four interceptions in three years.

    Williams is much taller, at 6-1, and has become the “it” guy in mock drafts. He is also not the only Texas cornerback worth consideration. Curtis Brown is another potential selection and could be had in the second round.

    In fact, there are a number of good second round options including Ras-I Dowling from Virginia and Jimmy Smith from Colorado. Both players possess plenty of size, both around 6-2.

    Later in the draft, the Steelers may look for Chimdi Chekwa, a speedster from Ohio State, or Chykie Brown, an experience player from Texas.

    Even though they just spent two draft picks on cornerbacks two years ago, Joe Burnett and Lewis, the Steelers may do just the same this year.

    DRAFT NEED: 10


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    Troy Polamalu is one of the best safeties in the league, but has been plagued by injuries and Ryan Clark. Though dependable, he is often beat deep due to his lack of speed.

    Behind the starters, Ryan Mundy has established himself as a capable backup, but doesn’t have the elite athleticism to match up with the faster receivers in the league.

    Given the injury issues to Polamalu and the overall lack of speed at the position, the Steelers will need to upgrade their depth at safety at some point.

    That point may not be this year as the safety class is relatively weak. Pittsburgh may have better luck converting a cornerback to a safety.



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    Though Daniel Sepulveda is coming off yet another knee injury, the Steelers do not have enough draft picks to have the luxury of bringing in a punter to challenge him.

    When healthy, Sepulveda is above average and he was having a good year last season prior to the injury.


Your Thoughts

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    What are your thoughts on the Steelers' defensive needs? What defensive position is the biggest need and what players do you want to see in a Steelers uniform? Should the Steelers draft more than one cornerback? Post your comments below. 

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