Now that we have completed our look at the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 90-man roster heading into OTAs, it’s time to take a look back at the team’s 53-man roster from last year’s regular season, for the purpose of revisiting the contributions of the players that are no longer with the team, and whether or not those contributions have been adequately replaced.
Roster turnover is just a natural fact of today’s NFL, which have only become more prominent since the advent of free agency more than two decades ago. It’s very rare for a team to return all 11 starters on one side of the ball from one year to the next, let alone to do so for both the offense and defense.
The Steelers are certainly no exception to that rule, and they figure to have a number of lineup changes from 2014 to 2015—more so than usual, perhaps, with the retirement of three starters on the defensive side of the ball alone.
The only time that Brett Keisel started a game in his final season was when the Steelers opened the game in their nickel defense—but it’s all semantics anyway, because he consistently logged more snaps than starter Cam Thomas.
Keisel was instrumental to the Steelers’ defense, at least for most of the 2014 season, before he tore a muscle in his arm in what will likely spell the end of his career. Only he and Cameron Heyward were trusted to serve as the pass-rushing ends in the team’s sub-package looks, as has long been Keisel’s forte, but it’s fair to say that that torch has been passed.
Rookie Stephon Tuitt entered the starting lineup the week after Keisel was lost for the rest of the year, and there has been no looking back from there. While his play at the end of the season was not remarkable (he did record a sack and forced a fumble), it’s what he is expected to do in the future that has everybody excited entering his second season.
What Tuitt can’t replace, at least not yet, is the experience and leadership that Keisel brought off the field. Just listening to Tuitt talk about how much that he learned from Keisel in their one season together says a lot about what the old veteran meant to the team in the locker room, and that is not something that is replaced, but rather developed.
There may be a slight leadership void, which Heyward is doing his best to assume on his own despite the fact that he is about a decade younger, but he is certainly the leader of the line on the field, and Tuitt is the future.
Where the Steelers may hurt is in terms of depth, but the truth is that we have to wait to see how things sort out. The team drafted a defensive end this year, and there have been encouraging words about others in camp. The team nearly entered the season without Keisel last season, and that was nearly a mistake. This year, the story must be different.