It started during the 2011 draft. The Steelers selected Cam Heyward with the 31st pick of the first round that year. Since then, its been a non-stop parade of early round picks aimed at rebuilding an aging defense. After a few misses like Sean Spence, Jarvis Jones, and Shamarko Thomas Steelers GM Kevin Colbert started hitting it big. In 2014 he selected Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt in the first two rounds. The next year brought Bud Dupree and Senquez Golson. Colbert hit the jackpot in the 2016 draft, selecting Artie Burns, Sean Davis, and Javon Hargrave with his first three selections. Finally, the 2017 draft have brought TJ Watt and Cam Sutton into a defense now loaded with top 3 draft choices. The question now is when do we start seeing results that equal the draft pedigree of this group?
When last we saw this defense in action, they were getting torched by Tom Brady and the New England Patriots to the tune of 36 points and almost 500 yards of offense. All that without Pittsburgh nemesis Rob Gronkowski, who missed the game due to injury. Not exactly a game the team can use as a building block heading into this season. There are plenty of reasons to think this defense may actually turn a corner in 2017 though. There has been much talk about the offseason Bud Dupree has had. He attended Chuck Smith's pass rushing camp and got received rave reviews. Dupree seems poised to become the edge rusher the Steelers have so desperately lacked over recent years. Add to that first round pick TJ Watt, and Pittsburgh may finally have the feared pass rush the team is known for. The strength of the unit is clearly defensive line. It may be the best the team has had since the 70's. If Heyward, Tuitt, and Hargrave stay healthy, this group will be nearly impossible to handle. That in turn will make things easier for the linebackers to make plays. Speaking of linebackers, Ryan Shazier should be on track for an All-Pro type campaign. He is quite possibly the most athletic inside linebacker in the NFL.
So everything appears rosy on the defense until we get to the secondary. This is where the questions begin. This unit has been done no favors by the lack of pressure put on opposing quarterbacks over the last few years, but there are still real questions to be answered. For this group to be truly successful, Artie Burns must become a shut down corner. That would require a big leap for the 2nd year pro. Sean Davis must also take a big leap to the play making safety the club has lacked since Troy Polamalu retired. Ross Cockrell is a serviceable second corner, and Mike Mitchell is a good veteran safety, but without marked improvement from the young players this secondary stands to struggle again in 2017. A planned shift in philosophy to more man coverage could go very good, or very bad. It should prevent the slow death caused by repeated short completions, but also could result in many more big plays being surrendered. There are sure to be growing pains early on as the defense transitions to this more aggressive coverage scheme.
The Steelers have invested heavily in defense over the past several seasons and now they need to see some results. This unit has the talent now to do special things, and 2017 could be the breakout season. All but three starters (Ross Cockrell, Vince Williams and James Harrison) were drafted in the top three rounds of the draft. That kind of draft pedigree should result in a top-tier defense. The rebirth of the Steel-Curtain defense may be underway, and that would be a welcomed site to all involved with the Steelers.