Kevin Colbert spent the better part of the last decade building the Steelers defense into one of the best units in the league. He spent seven straight first round picks from 2013 to 2019 on that side of the ball. All in an attempt to rebuild a once dominant defense, which had fallen into mediocrity. His hard work paid off as the Steelers defense had become one of the best in the NFL in 2019 and 2020. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/years/2020/opp.htm
Unfortunately in today’s NFL it becomes very difficult to keep a team together for any long stretch of time. Free agency, injuries, and age all conspire against maintaining any sort of consistency for more than just a few seasons. All of these have hit the Steelers heading into this season. Let’s take a look at each individual position group on the defense.
This is the group where age is a significant factor. Starting with the Steelers defensive captain Cam Heyward who is about to enter his eleventh season. That might as well be dog years when it comes to playing the interior line in the NFL. There were more than a few times last season where Heyward struggled to get off the field due to either exhaustion, injury, or a combination of the two. Even with that in mind, he still managed to put together another incredible season for this team. The question becomes how much longer can Cam Heyward keep this up? There aren’t many elite players in the NFL at 32 years of age. Even fewer who play the position Heyward does.
Speaking of age, Cam Heyward’s line mate Tyson Alualu is no spring chicken either. Alualu is thirty four years old, and about to enter season number twelve. That makes two third’s if the Steelers defensive line well over thirty, and with a decade plus of mileage under their belts.
The good news is the last member of this unit Stephon Tuitt is only is only 28 years old, and seems to be entering the prime of his career. Injuries however are always a concern here. Tuitt has only played one full season in his career.
The depth on this unit is pretty nonexistent. Chris Wormley, Isaiah Buggs, and Henry Mondeaux are role players at best. The Steelers did spent significant draft capital on Isaiahh Loudermilk in this past draft. They must see something in him most don’t. Loudermilk was considered barely draftable by most, and yet the Steelers traded a future fourth round pick to move up and get him. Kevin Colbert needs to be very right on this one.
This is the deepest group of any on the defensive side of the ball. Devin Bush and Robert Spillane represent a solid pair of inside linebackers with the potential to be elite. Behind them Kevin Colbert somehow managed to bring back Vince Williams at a discount despite cutting him earlier in the off-season. Fourth round pick Buddy Johnson is an intriguing player with impressive athleticism.
The elephant in the room here is how well Devin Bush comes back after a pretty severe knee injury last season. The Steelers need at least one elite athlete at this position who can both cover, and stand up against the run. Any significant slippage from Bush will be a real problem for this defense.
There was no greater loss this off-season than when Bud Dupree signed his deal with the Tennessee Titans. Fans, and media alike are greatly underestimating how much Dupree meant to this defense. His ability to rush the passer, and set the edge against the run at an elite level will be sorely missed in 2021. We like the pass rushing ability that Alex Highsmith flashed last season. The fact is however that he is not now, nor never will he be as good in all phases as Dupree was. We openly questioned the decision to extend Cam Heyward instead of Dupree last off-season. Bud Dupree vs Cam Heyward: The Steelers chose the wrong player to resign
The depth on this unit is absolutely terrifying to say the least. It consists of journeyman special teamer Cassius Marsh, and sixth round pick Quincy Roche. That’s it. The Steelers will have to add a veteran to this group at some point. With their lack of cap space, don’t expect the depth issue to improve much however.
We have absolutely no idea what the Steelers plan is at corner this season. If it wasn’t bad enough losing a premier slot corner like Mike Hilton to free agency, the Steelers made the problem much worse by cutting Steven Nelson. Thankfully they were able to resign Cam Sutton, or this group would be a complete dumpster fire. Kevin Colbert did not address this position in the draft until the seventh round. This means either James Pierre or Justin Layne will be a starter at outside corner on the Steelers defense.
If that’s not scary enough, the other starter will be the thirty two year old Joe Haden. There aren’t many thirty plus year old starting corners excelling in the NFL. Never mind the fact that Haden is being counted on to be this team’s number one corner.
The other alternative is playing Cam Sutton on the outside. There are two problems with this scenario. First, slot corner is clearly Sutton’s best position. He does not have the elite athleticism to be an above average player on the outside. Secondly, this would create a giant hole at slot corner. Either undrafted free agent Shakur Brown, or the bargain free agent Arthur Maulet would have to step into this key role.
This is the one position group where we can expect actual improvement along the Steelers defense. We know Minkah Fitzpatrick is already one of the best safeties in the entire league. Terrell Edmunds is coming off his best season, and still is only 24 years old. He may never be a Pro-Bowl caliber safety, but Edmunds is a solid piece on this unit.
Again the issue of depth is a problem with this group. Special teams ace Miles Killabrew, and former sixth round pick Antoine Brooks Jr. are the presumed backups. Arthur Maulet also saw some time at safety with the Jets last season. An injury to either starter would be a disaster here.
Coming off two straight dominant years on defense, many are expecting more of the same in 2021. Taking a hard look at this defense shows exactly the opposite. Considering the talent drop off from free agency, and with age concerns creeping in, this promises to be a trying season on the Steelers defense.
We have seen what happens when this team must rely on coaching rather than overwhelming talent. More often than not this team falls short, embarrassingly short at times. The combination of Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler have never proved to be capable defensive minds. More often than not this team has been badly out coached on that side of the ball.
There is still enough talent on this defense to be respectable. The days of being a top five defense are long gone however. Those of us who like watching elite defenses had a short window to enjoy it here in Pittsburgh. A return to frustrating ties seems inevitable.