It has been said of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense for the last few years that it will take time for the unit to gel as a whole during the course of the season. That certainly looks to be a recurring theme heading into the 2015 season, a fact that can be largely attributed to the fact that the team has had a difficult time actually fielding its full complement of starters at the same time.
Even during Saturday’s ‘tune up’ game for the regular season, the Steelers were missing three starters in Lawrence Timmons, Mike Mitchell, and Stephon Tuitt, exposing a hole at each level of the defense, and that certainly showed on the field.
With Timmons’ turf toe injury, Tuitt’s ankle sprain, the hamstring and ankle injuries of Mitchell, the shoulder injury suffered by Shamarko Thomas, and the numerous other ailments that have kept players from lining up either in practice or in games, the lack of time spent together as a unit is going to make it that much more difficult for this defense to play cohesively.
That means, of course, that we can probably expect to see the defense struggle early on, to nobody’s surprise. But they will struggle not just from a talent level, but from a communication level, and with the ability to play off of each other’s tendencies, things that can only be developed effectively through the accumulation of time logged on the field together.
It was imperative this offseason for the defense to build that chemistry together, not just because of the significant changes that have taken place over the course of this offseason, but over the course of the past few offseasons.
With the exception of Timmons, this starting defense is an entirely different unit than the one that first took the field in the 2012 season opener. The Steelers have four starters in the lineup who were not even in the league yet at that point, in fact.
Each year, the Steelers have added a small batch of new starters into the mix, and that trend continues this season, with new full-time starters at defensive end, outside linebacker, and safety. It goes without saying that this constant injection of new starters makes it all the more critical to develop meaningful chemistry, which was arguably the defining trait of this defense at its height in the 2000s.
The fact that the Steelers are entering a new era under Keith Butler, with the inclusion of more Cover 2 looks and one-gapping along the defensive line, along with additional known and unknown tweaks, makes it all the more concerning that the starting group has not received an extensive amount of playing time together.
Coupled with the fact that the offense will be saddled with a trio of starters out to begin the season for a variety of lengths of time, there certainly is reason to believe that the Steelers could be struggling to find victories early on in the year until they find their footing. Again.