We knew going into the 2015 season that there would be some changes, especially on the defensive side of the ball, for the Pittsburgh Steelers as they looked to reassert themselves as championship contenders, hoping to win a playoff game for the first time since the 2010 season.
Perhaps one of the biggest changes that we’ve seen has been the Steelers’ willingness to take more chances with younger or inexperienced players, though this has not been universally true, and they have also been heavily goaded by necessity.
Throughout the offseason, the Steelers tried their best to force feed the strong safety position to Shamarko Thomas, but by the time the preseason was over, they were simply not comfortable enough to trust him in that role, and so they turned the spot over to the veteran Will Allen.
But with Allen out with an ankle injury for all but eight snaps the past two weeks, the opportunity has been given to Robert Golden to play, and to start, logging every snap on Sunday in a fine showing for the first start of his career.
Golden will be making his second start tomorrow, but Alejandro Villanueva will be making the first start of his career in a role that is more long-term for the season.
Villanueva, a 27-year-old first-year offensive lineman, will be the Steelers’ starting left tackle for the remainder of the season after Kelvin Beachum tore his ACL. Pittsburgh has done everything it could to help Villanueva succeed, giving him some of the best coaching in the league, as well as a year on the practice squad, to get to this point, and now they are trusting him to deliver.
It also can’t be ignored that the Steelers have shown great leniency in their traditionally stubborn prohibition of playing defenders who have not had long to sink their teeth into the scheme this year, at least for one player.
That player would be Ross Cockrell, who has only been on the roster since the final cut down day, when he was signed as a free agent. He has been the Steelers’ starting nickel back since the second week of the season, and it doesn’t appear that that role is set to diminish in the near future.
Rookie Bud Dupree may not be in the starting lineup—though two second-year defenders are, a rarity in itself—but it’s certainly more than notable that the first-round outside linebacker has been logging a significant number of snaps.
Dupree has logged 231 snaps through the first three weeks of the season, playing over half of the team’s snaps and averaging not far south of 40 snaps per game. While he has not been dominant, he has not looked out of place, and he has had key moments of production, leading the linebackers with three sacks.
Oh, and they are evidently trusting Landry Jones to start a game tomorrow. Such an idea would have seemed unthinkable just a week or two ago, but at the moment it appears that he presents the Steelers their best chance to win the game.
Pittsburgh has gotten off to a somewhat surprising 4-2 start while making do for half of that time without their quarterback. Part of the reason for that success can be traced back to the fact that they have given some young, inexperienced players the opportunity to step up, and they have done so.