There are many people out there wondering, for good reason, what the defense will be like for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2015. After all, there have been a lot of changes thus far, consisting only of subtractions or lateral moves, up to this point. They changed defensive coordinators (lateral move), for example, while they lost one of their starting cornerbacks (subtraction).
This has led many people to believe that the Steelers defense will be in even worse shape this season than it was a year ago, when Pittsburgh gave up 353 yards (18th) and 23 points (18th) per game.
After all, how much better can it get if you’re not even replacing some of the few quality pieces that are no long with the team? But the truth is that the Steelers’ defense by the end of the 2014 season was already better than the defense they had at the beginning of last year, and that is a development that should continue to improve.
Admittedly, a lot of things have to go right. The Steelers are building a puzzle right now on defense, and they’re trying to figure out which pieces they already have and where they go before they start adding new pieces. Eventually, the full picture will begin to unfold.
Let’s start with the defensive line. The line was undergoing a transition a year ago, with Cameron Heyward moving from the left side to the right, and journeyman Cam Thomas starting opposite him. This year, second-year end Stephon Tuitt will be manning the left defensive end spot, and he appears more ahead of schedule than Heyward was at this point in their respective careers.
At linebacker, we have two young players who have missed a lot of time due to injury and are still very much continuing to develop in Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier. In many ways, the future of the defense relies very much on how these two players shape it. The Steelers could be adding yet another future-shaping linebacker in the first round next month.
Lawrence Timmons is, of course, the rock at linebacker, who should be a little more comfortable this year as he plays with more stability around him. At this point, I have little choice but to work under the assumption that James Harrison is going to be at the other outside linebacker spot. Of course, in making that assumption I’m adding yet another piece that has to fall into its proper place for the right picture to take shape.
The secondary? That’s surely where the biggest gambles lie. Given the universal certainty with which the Steelers beat has painted the ultimate dismissal of Troy Polamalu, I think we still have to assume that this will take place, and that means they’ll have a new free safety—as of right now, most likely Shamarko Thomas. He played two snaps last year. That’s a puzzle piece we can barely make out right now.
At cornerback, the Steelers are about to pay a $3 million roster bonus to Cortez Allen in the hopes that he can start looking more like 2012 than 2014. Of course, this isn’t factoring in what will likely be a handful of high- and mid-round defensive draft picks who could see playing time.
This all really makes it difficult to see what the picture on that box looks like, but I don’t think any of these pieces, individually, are unlikely to work out. Getting them all to fit together will be tricky, but I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion by any means that this defense can’t be better than the one the Steelers had a year ago.