Over the course of the past couple of years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have undergone an uncommon amount of change, which could have been largely correlated with the fact that the team had finished 8-8 in consecutive seasons while failing to advance to the postseason.
In deference to general manager Kevin Colbert, the attitude used to approach the offseason in those years was that this was an 8-8 team and these were 8-8 players. It’s little surprise that a lot of things changed during those years.
Perhaps the single most intriguing change that had been alluded to several times by players and coaches that will be brought to this team is the possibility of incorporating more one-gapping techniques for the defensive line in pass-rushing situations, which has certainly not been the norm for a Steelers defense.
It seems an opportune time to do this, of course, and not just because of the transition from one defensive coordinator to another, who has given suggestions that he may have a slightly less conservative strategy.
The fact of the matter is that the Steelers’ strength on defense appears to be along the defensive line, with Cameron Heyward’s status as the best player on that side of the ball being cemented in his signing of a new six-year deal that makes him the highest-paid defensive player on the team.
Heyward posted 7.5 sacks last season, and had another taken away by penalty, and he knows that he has the ability to attain more. If given a greater amount of high-quality pass rushing opportunities, he could become the first Steelers defensive end to crack the double-digit threshold in quite some time.
Opposite him will be Stephon Tuitt, who is far less proven than Heyward, and for obvious reasons. Tuitt is a second-year player who entered the starting lineup in part due to injury during the final four games of his rookie season, but he is a high-pedigreed player for whom there are very high hopes.
There are some who believe that Tuitt is already ahead of the curve that Heyward was on, and that he has the physical and mental ability to reach an even higher plateau when all is said and done. That is all mere speculation until proven, of course, but the belief in that capability is no doubt part of the reason for considering using more one-gapping this season.
Tuitt had just one sack as a rookie, though he could have been credited with at least one half-sack, and got in several quality shots on the quarterback during intermittent periods of play before entering the starting lineup.
The young man clearly still has some growing to do, but he is poised to make a big jump from year one to year two, and giving him and Heyward the opportunity to establish more of a pass-rushing presence can have a serious impact on a defensive unit that has struggled to generate pressure, let alone sacks, in recent years. The timing was right to make this tweak, if it is indeed what we end up seeing on Sundays.