If you were to poll NFL writers and ask them to describe the Pittsburgh Steelers biggest weakness, my guess is most of them would break down some aspect of the team’s defense heading into the 2015 season. Maybe the team’s biggest flaw is a secondary that just saw longtime stalwarts Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu hang it up, and now must turn to many younger, unproven players to carry the unit. A pass rush relying on the ancient James Harrison and the unimpressive Jarvis Jones could also be a valid option as the team’s biggest weakness when looking at where the roster currently stands.
While those statements may be both be true in the end, I would argue that they aren’t necessarily accurate at this point in the offseason. Obviously nothing is known for sure until the regular season begins, but with this Steelers defense there is much more of an unknown element than a certain weakness.
Take the secondary for example. With Taylor and Polamalu gone, this likely means a substantial increase in playing time for Shamarko Thomas and undrafted free agent Antwon Blake. Thomas played in just three snaps defensively last year, and Blake was serviceable when filling in down the stretch in 2014. Perhaps Cortez Allen, burnt consistently last season before being demoted, can be referred to as a sure weakness, but with rookie Senquez Golson and Doran Grant waiting in the wings, who is to say how much Allen plays?
That isn’t to say the Citadel product can’t have a bounce-back campaign in 2015, but more to make the point that this isn’t last year’s secondary. The Steelers don’t need to be reliant on Allen to be a stud this season, if he struggles, there is plenty of promising young talent waiting to prove themselves in a bigger role.
That’s my point here, that even though the defense will be perceived as a weakness, they are truly more young and unproven than anything else. There is plenty of talent along Pittsburgh’s defensive corps, but with that talent comes plenty of questions.
Can Ryan Shazier rebound from a tumultuous rookie season and be more consistent in 2015? Can Mike Mitchell prove he wasn’t a free agent bust this year now that he is no longer dealing with a groin injury? Can Allen regain his starting spot and make good on the healthy contract extension the Steelers gifted him last offseason? Will Daniel McCullers and Stephon Tuitt continue to blossom into full-time contributors along the defensive line? Is Arthur Moats a stud waiting to happen now that he is playing a bigger role from an edge position in a defense much more suited to his talents?
Perhaps most importantly, what can we expect from a defense-heavy 2015 rookie class? Can Bud Dupree win a Week 1 starting job, or will his development be a slow test of patience as he enhances his awareness and pass-rushing tools. Will Golson and Grant make an impact right away and beat out Blake or Allen for a starting cornerback spot across from William Gay? How quickly will L.T. Walton and Anthony Chickillo be ready to contribute, and at what position will they be most effective? Can Gerod Holliman overcome his tackling and physicality issues to garner some playing time at a safety spot without much depth for the Steelers?
We can write our thoughts and predictions on Pittsburgh’s defensive situation, but in the end there is simply no knowing at this point. There could be six new starters on the Steelers defense when Week 1 rolls around compared to the unit that took the field in Week 1 of last year, making the group more unpredictable than bad. Six rookie or second-year players will be vying for starting spots as well this season, and that number doesn’t even include players with equal levels of on-field NFL experience like Sean Spence, Thomas, and Blake.
Will there be a learning curve? Probably, yes. Will there be typical rookie and youth mistakes as the defense grows? Most likely, especially with a new defensive coordinator in Keith Butler. Only time will tell how long it will take until the unit begins to gel, but there is no denying that a more talented defense will be on the field to face the New England Patriots when the regular season arrives, than the old and haggard group that lined up against the Cleveland Browns in Week 1 of last season. This is a young and exciting defense, with hosts of talent at key positions and several players looking to rebound from down seasons last year.
So is the Steelers defense a weakness? Maybe, but don’t bank on it just yet. In any event, it should be a unit with plenty of surprises and growth in store for 2015.