While the Pittsburgh Steelers may have gained some tangible evidence of improvement, improving their win total by three games and hosting a playoff game as a division champion for the first time in four seasons, there is no doubt that the team is far from a finished product.
No team, of course, is a finished product in the offseason. Every team loses players to free agency and retirement, and replaces them through the same free agency process, as well as the draft.
With all of the change that occurs during the offseason, it’s often difficult to predict how a particular team might fare. They may wind up holding the Lombardi trophy or the first overall draft pick when all is said and done.
In order to gain a better feel for not only the issues facing the team this year, but how those issues might play out, it’s useful to take the devil’s advocate approach. This is the optimistic side of the coin.
Question: Can the Steelers succeed on defense by turning it over to youth?
As we all know by now, the Steelers’ defense has been old and slow for some time, no matter how many of the old and slow players retire or are released. With perhaps the last of the previous era following the red exit signs after the 2014 season, it stands to reason that the defense will look younger and faster next season.
Many young players could be seeing very prominent starting roles, such as second-year players Stephon Tuitt and Ryan Shazier and third-year players Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas. Two of the four, at the very least, figure to be in the starting lineup on opening day, if not all four of them.
Assuming that all of the projected cuts and departures do leave, then William Gay will figure to be the only player on defense who on opening day will be 30 years old or older. Steve McLendon, who just turned 29, would be the second-oldest.
Thomas, meanwhile, would be replacing the 33-year old Troy Polamalu, while Jones would, in essence, take over for the 36-year old James Harrison, who assumed the starting role by the end of the year.
Each of these four players have gotten some experience under their belt, although Thomas’s playing time came out of position, and during his rookie season, so he may be the furthest behind in terms of playing time.
All have shown, in the past, to have the potential to create an impact on some level. Even the much berated Jones had two sacks and a forced fumble in two and a half games of playing time in 2014 before suffering an injury.
It’s hard to say whether or not this crop of youth is the answer, but one thing that seems fairly assured is that the solution will not be found by looking backward. Given recent history, it also stands to reason that the Steelers may see significant playing time from a rookie or two from the 2015 class.
To be quite frank, the defense was already making the types of mistakes one might expect from a young and inexperienced unit. Why not put the youth out there and let them grow if the mistakes are already present?