Over the past two weeks, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense has allowed an average of 22 points per game on the road, albeit against inferior opponents by record. That is actually an improvement, at least in terms of raw numbers, over what has been a difficult season defensively for an organization traditionally defined by stout play on that side of the line of scrimmage.
The coaching staff, including defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, has been open this year in talking about the Steelers being a team in transition, and this applies as much to the defense as it does the offense.
That transitioned has been slowed down by key injuries throughout the year, and that has naturally hurt the team’s effectiveness on defense. Overall, perhaps, they’ve been able to play their way through most of it.
But there’s no denying that the team is hurting for some reinforcements on that side of the ball, and they should be getting some on the other side of the bye week. Indeed, this defense could look pretty different by the time it takes the field again.
The Steelers could be potentially getting six defensive players back, including five players who began the season as starters. Needless to say, that’s a pretty significant figure.
Cornerback Ike Taylor outside linebacker Jarvis Jones have both been sidelined for the past eight games, and that’s been injurious in terms of testing the team’s depth at each position.
Jones was injured in Week Three as he recorded his second sack of the year while simultaneously causing a fumble. As a result, the Steelers were forced to call upon James Harrison, who has mercifully played his way into form and has honestly played better than expected.
In the case of Taylor, it forced William Gay into the starting lineup, who is more comfortable playing in the slot. Without him, however, the secondary would likely be in shambles, such that it is not already, following the fall of Cortez Allen, who finds himself fifth on the depth chart.
The loss of Taylor, and later Allen, has put the secondary at a height disadvantage on the field, but the safety play over the last two weeks without Troy Polamalu has been an even bigger issue.
Last week, I documented the number of times in which Will Allen and Mike Mitchell were either blocked out of a play, drawn inside on a passing play, or were simply asked to do something they’re not good at doing because it’s something Polamalu would do. Getting him back would help put Mitchell in a more comfortable place, and Allen in a place in which fans are more comfortable seeing him—on the bench.
The Steelers gave rookie nose tackle Daniel McCullers the start at nose tackle as Steve McLendon rested his shoulder, but he found himself on the ground a number of times early in the game, and later gave way to Cam Thomas. In other words, McLendon’s return will be a welcomed addition.
And then there’s Ryan Shazier, the Steelers’ rookie first-round draft pick, a day-one starter who’s missed six games and large chunks of two others due to separate injuries. Sean Spence has been adequate at best as his replacement, but his difficult in tight spaces has been evident, while Vince Williams was asked to spell him.
Getting the speedy but stout Shazier back in the middle of the defense for the final stretch of the regular season will be critical. And the defense as a whole can only benefit tremendously from the return of such critical depth—not to mention the return of Shamarko Thomas, and perhaps the prospects of getting a renewed Cortez Allen back into the fold.