After the NFL Draft, the Steelers still have a huge hole in defense

Earlier in the week, I attempted to identify the biggest holes in the Steelers’ roster that still remained on offense after the draft, focusing mostly on what I felt was most needed. The article generated a lot of interest and facilitated some informative talking points. Many knowledgeable members of the BTSC community contributed to the discussion, listing their own thoughtful opinions and concerns.

Although I didn’t include a poll; in hindsight, I should have. Consensus within the community felt that the Steelers still needed upgrades in backup running back, tight third string and offensive line depth. The swing tackle was the most glaring hole left for the Steelers offense, in my opinion.

In this article, we’re going to focus on the defense needs of the remaining Steelers roster, and I’ll try to identify what I consider to be the biggest glaring hole.

The Steelers appeared to possess a potentially dominant defense heading into the 2021 NFL season. Then injuries, an unexpected retirement and tragedy decimated the talented roster. Suddenly, backup role players were pushed into starting roles, and the Steelers defense struggled, especially the run defense.

The Steelers have resolved some of their depth issues through free agency and the draft, as well as the expected triumphant return to form of some of the injured or missing in action, but questions remain. Such is life in the modern age of the salary cap.

The Steelers’ biggest defense shortcoming in 2021 was the run defense, without a doubt. Although the Steelers ranked ninth in pass defense, they finished last in the NFL against the run. I never imagined for a second that this would happen in my lifetime. The Steelers’ pass defense rankings were actually a little misleading, because why throw the ball when teams could easily ram the ball down the Steelers’ throats.

But enough about last season’s nightmare of a run defense. Hopefully this season will be a full 180 for the guys in black and gold. Tyson Alualu’s healthy return will do wonders for the run defense. I considered Alualu the most underrated Steelers defenseman over the past two years. His value at tying down blockers and holding the offensive line should never be taken for granted by a Steelers fan.

The expected return of Stephon Tuitt is anything but a certainty, so the Steelers drafted talented rookie DeMarvin Leal in the third round as insurance. Adding Leal to a defensive front that includes All-Pro Cameron Heyward, Alualu, Chris Wormley, Montravius ​​Adams, Isaiahh Loudermilk, and Carlos and Khalil Davis should provide the Steelers with quality defensive line depth. Tuitt is obviously the big unknown. If he doesn’t return, then the Steelers might be wise to sign another experienced running thug.

The Steelers secondary has actually improved this offseason. Longtime starting corner Joe Haden remains a free agent and seems unlikely to return. Haden’s game started showing the effects of Father Time last season in the form of injuries and decreased foot speed. Newly acquired free agent corner Levi Wallace is an upgrade, in my opinion. Wallace is a strong all-around wedge. He has coverage versatility and he is physical in the running game.

Ahkello Witherspoon enters the 2022 season as another starting cornerback. In the past, he has struggled when thrown around as a starting corner. Hopefully that trend stays in the past, as the Steelers are counting on him to play as the standout covering corner the Steelers saw in the second half of last season. What he has in speed and agility, he lacks in physicality. Basically, don’t ask him to tackle.

Another area where the Steelers have improved in the defensive backfield is safety. Not only were the Steelers able to maintain their defensive chemistry by re-signing Terrell Edmunds on an incredibly team-friendly contract, but they were also able to secure free-agent veteran safety Damontae Kazee on another friendly deal with the team. Kazee is a ball peddler, a deep no-cover safety with starting experience, but has also spent time working in the slot machine. He’s a huge addition as a third safety and gives the Steelers great flexibility. The rest of the 2021 Steelers defensive backfield depth returns intact.

The Steelers have the NFL’s best point guard in 2021, NFL Defensive Player of the Year award winner TJ Watt, as well as up-and-coming Alex Highsmith trying to put it all together ahead of his third season. The Steelers have another pair of talented youngsters with potential in Derrek Tuszka and Genard Avery, but they may think it prudent to try to add a more accomplished veteran before camp begins.

That brings us to what I consider the biggest glaring hole for the Steelers on defense: linebacker Buck.

The retirement mentioned earlier in this article was none other than Vince Williams. Heading into training camp, the Steelers thought they were going to have Vince’s physical presence patrolling midfield. His shocking start left the Steelers looking for a run jam in the middle of the defense. They traded for veteran Joe Schobert, but unfortunately he’s a lot more cerebral than physical. It was a mixed disaster.

Without Alualu and Tuitt around to keep them clean, the Steelers’ inside linebackers were overwhelmed with consistency. It certainly didn’t help matters when Devin Bush couldn’t regain his rookie form. What was most disturbing was the fact that his aggression and intensity never returned, even though his mobility did. The disappointing performance led the Steelers to decline his fifth-year option. The 2022 season is a breakthrough year for Devin Bush.

Fully realizing their need for an upgrade at inside linebacker, the Steelers quickly recruited former Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack when he was surprisingly released early in free agency. I first assumed that Jack was brought in to motivate, if not replace, Bush as linebacker Mack in base defense for the Steelers. I made this assumption because Jack and Bush are of similar stature and ability. However, early reports suggest Jack will get the first shot at the currently unfilled Buck linebacker position.

I never considered Jack physical enough to be an ideal candidate for Buck’s linebacker position, and I still don’t think so. Jack could be effective if the Steelers defensive line remains healthy and effective enough to keep Jack and Bush clean and flowing towards the football. However, I fear Jack will struggle if he has to face blockers at any frequency, like Schobert and Bush last season.

Buddy Johnson is the only true Buck linebacker currently on the roster. No one knows what Johnson is truly capable of as he’s been inactive or injured for the majority of his rookie season. I was hoping the Steelers would try to address the position in the draft, but they had other plans. Hopefully the Steelers will continue to scan the market for a more physical and experienced veteran. Otherwise, we can only pray that the defensive line remains relatively healthy and intact enough to keep inside linebackers clean.

What do you think the Steelers’ biggest defensive need is? Please vote in the attached poll and explain your thought process in the comment thread below.

Stay tuned for additional breakdowns and job evaluations from staff at BTSC, your one-stop-shop for all things Pittsburgh Steelers.

Survey

What do you think the Steelers need most when it comes to defense?

  • 9%
    A = veteran point defender

    (40 votes)

  • 47%
    B = Execute Defensive Lineman Jam

    (199 votes)

  • 28%
    C = linebacker Buck

    (118 votes)

  • 12%
    D = cornerback depth

    (53 votes)


420 voices in total

Vote now

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