They say that you can estimate a loss or two per season for every rookie that you have in your starting lineup. Last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers fielded a defense that contained one rookie starter at the beginning of the year, but the lineup also featured two other players who were in their first season with the team.
As the year progressed, another rookie entered the starting lineup, while two other players in their first season with the team emerged in starting roles due to injury and ineffectiveness. The defense certainly had its struggles, but the offensive consistency still allowed the team to manage an 11-5 record and a division title.
When reflecting on how poorly the defense played through stretches of last season, perhaps it’s worth keeping in mind just how many literally new faces were involved.
Rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier became the first opening-day starter on defense since Kendrell Bell more than a decade ago. Behind him, safety Mike Mitchell was plugged immediately into the starting lineup, while Cam Thomas assumed the left defensive end position.
That’s three new faces that were not on the team the year before on opening day. Later in the season, rookie Stephon Tuitt replaced Thomas in the starting lineup, and outside linebacker Arthur Moats and cornerback Brice McCain—offseason free agent acquisitions—started at least half the season at those positions.
I can’t recall a time last when the Steelers put so much on the shoulders of individuals who have not been in the system, and it does color my perception of how the unit performed as a whole last year.
It also helps shape my expectations for the upcoming season, in which nobody is projected to enter the starting lineup who was not on the roster last season.
Shazier and Tuitt are expected to resume their respective posts, while Moats should get the bulk of the work at the left outside linebacker spot, with rookie Bud Dupree getting some reps here and there as warranted.
Shamarko Thomas, in his third year, will be starting alongside Mitchell, in his second year with the team and, ideally, in better health. The trio of William Gay, Cortez Allen, and Antwon Blake at cornerback should ease the pressure, and need, to get their rookie cornerbacks on the field sooner rather than later.
In other words, the defense should be full of contributors who have already been marinating in the system for the past two seasons, which should in theory reduce the incident of error and miscommunication and increase the unit’s cohesiveness and cooperation within the system.
Of course, it’s also true that the Steelers have made a switch as defensive coordinator, but it’s not as though Keith Butler is a new face by any means, having put in over a decade as the team’s linebackers coach, and the transition into his defensive philosophy should be absolutely minor, with those already in the system having a root understanding of where it was derived from his predecessor.