The Steelers defense has declined significantly over the past few years. Steeler fans are grumbling. In 2011, the Steelers were the top-rated defense in total yards and points allowed. In 2012, they remained the top-rated defense in total yards, but slipped to 6th in points allowed. Last season, they fell to 13th and 14th, respectively. Trending down in the area of defense is not a good sign for a proud organization with a rich tradition of defense that is expected to make the playoffs every year. Do you remember when the defense used to carry this team? If it returns to form (give it a few years), just think of the possibilities to go along with its trending up offense.
The biggest reason for the decline has been the failure to replace aging veterans and inject some youth into the rotation. They have not had a lethal pass-rusher causing havoc in the backfield at outside linebacker since James Harrison was in his prime, and the secondary was equipped with players over the age of 30 years old. The addition of safety Mike Mitchell is a help in replacing Ryan Clark, but the Steelers are still in desperate need of a young playmaker at the cornerback position. While Cortez Allen figures to be a longtime starter at one spot, the Steelers need to find a replacement for Ike Taylor, and the draft will provide them with the perfect opportunity to do so.
Darqueze Dennard is one of the most physical cornerbacks in the draft and would fit in well with Dick LeBeau’s defense. He is a very good tackler and is arguably the best cover corner in the draft. However, at 5’11”, he is smaller compared to some of the other top options at the position and doesn’t possess elite speed. Instead, the Steelers may want to go with a bigger, more athletic option such as Justin Gilbert. He is considered to be the top-ranked cornerback in the draft by most scouts and combines good size (6’0”, 202 lbs) with outstanding speed (4.37 40-yard dash). He does not play the same physical game that Dennard does but offers more as a playmaker with seven interceptions last season. By comparison, Pittsburgh’s entire roster combined for 10 last season. Two other possible options include Kyle Fuller and Bradly Roby. Fuller is an aggressive cornerback who can play the pass and run, while Roby has elite athletic abilities, but his production last season tailed off from the season before. Should they take cornerback, I personally like the physical tools of Dennard over the speed of Gilbert. It’s not like Dennard is short at 5’11”.
Besides cornerback, the Steelers could use a top prospect at defensive end. With Ziggy Hood, Al Woods and Brett Keisel no longer on the roster, the depth chart at defensive end is barren. Like many other positions, this draft is deep at defensive end. Ideally, Ra’Shede Hageman or Stephon Tuitt would fall to the Steelers in the second round. Already with NFL frames, both Hageman and Tuitt would provide them with a powerful force on the defensive line to play against the run or rush the quarterback. See my draft profile on Tuitt.Cameron Heyward was one of the bright spots of the Steelers defense in 2013.
With Dick LeBeau running out of nickel and dime packages more than his base defense in recent years against pass-happy offenses, finding another disruptive force along the line besides Cameron Heyward is imperative. No longer are the defensive ends simply being asked to occupy blockers, but rather penetrate into the backfield and get to the quarterback. A good pass-rush would put less pressure on the secondary and allow them to hold up better in coverage.
The Steelers could also use an upgrade at inside linebacker next to Lawrence Timmons. They have been using Larry Foote in this role, but following a season-ending injury, they had to rely on rookie Vince Williams. Though he had a solid rookie year for a late-round pick, he is limited as a two-down player and isn’t particularly dominant against the run. Sean Spence is coming off a major injury and may not be ready for the start of the season. They did acquire Arthur Moats in free agency to play OLB, but he has not proven to be a four down player in his career.
GM Kevin Colbert could look to add the top inside linebacker in the draft, C.J. Mosley, in the first round. He has the ability to run sideline to sideline when defending the run and can drop into coverage. However, he will have to prove that he can fight through blocks (a little under-sized) and stay healthy. The Steelers could wait until the second or third round, where they can find a high-motor player such as Chris Borland. He may only be 5’11” and lack top speed, but he is a hard-nosed tough player who has been very productive at Wisconsin with over 100 tackles for three consecutive years. Shayne Skov out of Stanford is another run-stuffer who could excel as a two-down player in Pittsburgh’s system and while only costing them a 3rd or 4th round selection. A good bargain and value pick at that point of the draft.
With so many needs on the defensive side of the ball, don’t be surprised to see the Steelers use three of their top four selections on defensive players. They have hosted a ton of defensive prospects in the past month and spent considerable time with Dennard and Tuitt, in particular.