It wasn’t all that long ago that the Pittsburgh Steelers walked away from one of the more embarrassing defeats in franchise history. A crushing 36-17 loss to the rival New England Patriots left us with a clear view on how this team needed to improve. The defense was not nearly good enough, and changes needed to be made. Or so we thought at the time. Don’t be fooled by the late 9 game winning streak, and all the talk of an improving defense. The Steelers did not face one competent offense during that entire run. Having beaten the Browns twice, Bengals, Colts (without Luck), Ravens, Giants, Bills, Dolphins (without Tannehill) and Chiefs (with Alex Smith). That’s not exactly a murders row of offenses, and it led to a false sense of improvement. Fast forward to the present, and we see not much has changed at all. In fact, the defense may actually have gotten worse. Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement talk only further emphasised the need for quick fixes on the defense. The fact that those fixes did not come during this past offseason, may cost the Steelers a chance for more championships in the ever closing window of their franchise quarterback.
It’s not unusual to see the Steelers be inactive in free agency. Not overpaying free agents is the way the team chooses to do business and it has served them well over the years. What Kevin Colbert and company have never faced though is a star quarterback nearing the end of his career. Throughout the Colbert era, Pittsburgh has never had to worry about the quarterback position. This has allowed them to always take the long view on personnel matters. Colbert needed to break out of this mold, and do some bold things this offseason. Instead of this, he may have had his least effective offseason in some time. The Steelers chose not to resign long time linebacker Lawrence Timmons. They now plan to replace him with career backup Vince Williams. This is a downgrade no matter how you look at it. Pittsburgh did sign Coty Sensabaugh and Tyson Alualu as free agent acquisitions. How exactly does this improve on the weaknesses of pass rush and the secondary? The answer is simple, it doesn’t. While Alualu gives the Steelers some needed depth on the defensive line at least, Sensabaugh may not even make the team in a crowded cornerback group. Any reasonable person who sat through that AFC Championship game knows bit pieces are not going to solve the issues on defense. Add to that the fact that they did not repalce a key cog like Timmons in free agency.
If there is any hope for improving the defense from outside the organization it will come in the form of first round pick T. J. Watt. In time he could become what the Steelers have so badly lacked in recent years….. a dominant pass rusher. Two years from now Pittsburgh may return to their former selves with two book end pass rushers in Watt and Bud Dupree. The question remains though if Roethlisberger will still be around at a high level by then. After Watt, the Steelers drafted on offense inexplicably for three out of the next four selections. Cornerback Cam Sutton was the only other defensive selection in the top half of the Steelers draft. Sutton has some upside, but does he really improve the glut of average corners the team currently has? Not right away it would seem. This is not to say the Steelers draft was bad, in a vacuum it was actually quite good. drafting a quarterback, receiver, and running back all in the first 4 rounds did little to help this team in 2017, and that’s the problem.
The best guess here is that the Steelers are banking on dramatic improvements from the young players already on the roster. There’s some young talent on this squad without question. It would seem that a team with Dupree, Shazier, Davis, Burns, Hargrave and now Watt could be expected to a leap in the upcoming season. That’s not a unreasinable thing to hang your hopes on. Now the question of coaching comes into play. Particularly the defensive aspect of it. I do not think it’s unfair to say this team was badly out coached in the AFC Championship game. This team had no answers to the New England offense whatsoever. Kevin Colbert decided not to make any changes on the defensive staff despite this showing. Even choosing to keep Joey Porter on after all his offseason troubles. Colbert is sticking to the long standing Steeler tradition of patience and loyalty. Time will tell if this will philosophy will work in this unusual situation they now face.