Can a football unit still be considered to be on an upward trend even in the midst of pending, potentially significant, roster turnover in the starting lineup? If so, then perhaps the Pittsburgh Steelers defense could be considered to be following such a trend.
That trend, of course, has a lot to do with the fact that the team was able to get a lot of young players a lot of experience this season, which will bode well as they head into their second, third, and even fourth seasons.
Three rookies, in fact, received significant playing time in not just their own first postseason game, but the first postseason game the team has experienced in three seasons. Though only one of them started the game, they all made notable contributions.
That starter was, of course, Stephon Tuitt, who entered the starting lineup through the final quarter of the regular season after Brett Keisel was lost for the season. He ended up starting the last five games and showing both growth and obvious room for improvement.
The Steelers’ first-round pick, Ryan Shazier, began the season as a starter, as is well known by this point, but injuries and practice habits saw him passed over in the lineup by two other young linebackers.
It’s only been within the past two to three weeks that Shazier has seen his snap count pick up, and he played the most out of any of the three rotational linebackers during the Wildcard loss, showing well against the run but making mistakes in coverage—which is not surprising for a rookie.
Even Daniel McCullers, the giant, sixth-round draft pick, saw a season-high snap count, and actually played quite well. The nose tackle position fared well for most of the game, in fact, and McCullers’ performance was likely his best of the year.
The three—Tuitt, Shazier, and McCullers—figure to become key cogs in the defensive lineup and rotation beginning in the 2015 regular season. The first two will likely be in the starting lineup on opening day, while McCullers will figure to get a healthy number of snaps along the defensive line.
But it’s not just the second-year players, of course. It’s also the Jarvis Jones’ and Vince Williams’ of the team. Even Sean Spence, who missed his first two seasons, is still a young player who has more to deliver to the team.
At the same time, there are question marks with a couple of retirements likely in the cards, particularly in the secondary, where the Steelers are already becoming thin. While there may be some encouraging pieces emerging for the defense over the next year or so, other areas—particularly at outside linebacker, perhaps, depending on how things develop—will need to be replaced.
But, of course, the spring will only bring in another crop of rookies to add to the neverending process, and they, too, hopefully, will continue to add to the mix and stave off the decline of the aging veteran players. It’s a trend that’s hard to master, but perhaps the Steelers are starting the find the winning end of the spectrum again.