Ranking The Steelers: Defense

We’re having a little bit of fun here on the bye week. From best to worst, I’ll rank every Pittsburgh Steelers who has played at least 10% of the offense’s snaps in 2015. That means you won’t see names like Brandon Boykin, Anthony Chickillo, or L.T. Walton on this list.

This grading is based off just the tape on defense, not special teams. Important to keep in mind. We’re also going to try and examine each player in a vacuum, based solely off their tape. Not making excuses, not looking at situation, just grading the player evenly based off tape. That means some players get a harsher rank even though there are circumstances that explain poorer play.

One last thing. Obviously, some players are going to have to be on the bottom of the list. It does not mean I think they are awful. There is a lot of talent on this offenses, inevitably pushing some players down. Every player has redeemable qualities and I’ve pointed that out for everyone at one point during the season. So save the hate.

Feel free to critique this list and just as importantly, make your own. I’d love to hear it.

1. Cam Heyward

Heyward has to be a unanimous top pick. I don’t know who else you could put in the conversation. He was a stud last year to Steelers’ fans who watched closely enough and has garnered national attention this year. He’s physical, athletic, with an insatiable motor and a dude that just does not come off the field. The Steelers line him up at right end in their base defense but put him over the nose or stand him up to either side in sub-package football. He’s even dropped into coverage. He should match his sack production of 7.5 from a year ago down the stretch. He is a top three 3-4 defensive end in this league, right up there with J.J. Watt and Muhammad Wilkerson.

2. William Gay

I liked the joke on The Terrible Podcast of anointing Gay as the new Nnamdi Asomugha. It’s a little tounge-in-cheek but it’s also true in the sense of teams have stopped throwing in his direction. Gay seems to get better with age and even showed some of the speed he has left, running step-for-step with Travis Benjamin last week. He’ll never be confused for a remarkable playmaker or athlete but his physical style and technically sound play will increase his shelf life past most corners (like Asomugha). He’s versatile, playing inside and out, and essentially even some safety in certain coverages. Forever underrated, even by some fans, Gay has been a lifesaver for a tumultuous position in 2015.

3. Mike Mitchell

I posed the question of where you’d rank Mitchell last week. I think most have wised up to his stellar play and putting him here only affirms that. Mitchell has been a playmaker, picking off three passes and forcing two fumbles, while being a reliable and forceful tackler in the back end of the secondary. Frankly, there are few flaws in his game now. He’ll miss the occasional tackle but that’s expected of anyone asked to routinely tackle in the open field. It took a year, and the repair of two groins, but the money the team put down on Mitchell has paid off.

4. Stephon Tuitt

Tuitt himself has had an incredible season that was unfortunately stalled because of a knee injury. He’s brace-free now and will hopefully be back to his havoc-causing presence as a pass rusher. His improvement from Year One to Year Two is remarkable. He has excellent hand use that starts with explosion out of his stance and a violent punch. His play against the run has been above-average and his hustle may only be matched by Heyward. Tuitt currently leads the team with 4.5 sacks.

5. Lawrence Timmons

Timmons has received a fair share of criticisms this season. It hasn’t been all roses for the veteran linebacker but when you play 100% of your team’s snaps – the only player in the NFL who can say that – you’re going to have some negative plays out of sheer volume. Though we’re not here to make excuses, I can almost guarantee you the turf toe injury he suffered near the end of the preseason affected him early on. There’s a reason why his play is magically better over the last couple weeks. He’s just healthier. He’s an every-situation player, still uses his hands well to work off blocks, and is trusted the most in coverage.

6. Robert Golden

Maybe it’s a surprise to see him this high, especially when his sample size is smaller than most. But I thought his play was extremely positive and Mike Tomlin routinely complimented as such. He’s big, a thumper, and showed better coverage skills than I’ve seen from him in the past. All while handling his normal duties on special teams, though that doesn’t count here. But it speaks to his overall preparation and high level of conditioning to run down a punt and then participate in a ten play series. I don’t know if the team views him as the future of the position, the fact Will Allen got his job back suggests not, but I’m a lot more interested in finding out than I ever was.

7. Steve McLendon

McLendon’s curse is tied to his position. Playing nose tackle in a 3-4 is not a way to see the field, leading McLendon to sit near the heater more often than not this season. He’s an impactful player when given the opportunity, though playing on fresh legs certainly helps. For a nose tackle, he’s got a great first step that can penetrate against the run and overpower centers when solo blocked against the pass. He uses his hands well though he takes time getting off blocks, especially as a nickel package rusher. He’s only an average player in that regard and with how much nickel the Steelers are forced to run, it hurts his value.

8. Ryan Shazier

Night and day season for Shazier. He came out smoking with one of the best individual performances of the season in Week 2 against the San Francisco 49ers. After a shoulder injury that kept him out of the lineup longer than anyone anticipated, Shazier’s been inconsistent at best. There still have been splash plays, but Shazier’s average instincts in coverage have been exposed as well as some misses in his run fills. Since his return, he’s been rotated out of the lineup. Not sure if that says more about him or the play of the guys behind him but it’s worth noting

9. Ross Cockrell

Cockrell was put in a difficult spot. Second year kid, first year actually playing, and now he’s seeing action about 70% of the time. Even looking past that, as we’re doing for this exercise, he’s doing a nice job. I would like to see him be a little more physical at the line of scrimmage and versus the run while his interceptions have been relatively easy. But he does a nice job at the catch point and is a good athlete while being more physical than I saw on his Duke tape. It’s hard to be unhappy with his play and I won’t pretend I am.

10. Bud Dupree

The Steelers’ outside linebacker situation is just plain weird. The top four are almost interchangeable with their performance and style. Slap Dupree’s number on Arthur Moats, Moats’ on Jarvis Jones, and you probably wouldn’t notice the difference. At least Dupree is producing with four sacks despite being a rookie that typically has an Everest type learning curve. His sacks have been born more out of heart and hustle than innate talent anything else. His run defense has been good enough, too. In a vaccum, it’s nothing great but for a rookie,

11. Arthur Moats

Moats is your classic speed-to-power guy. He will only rarely win the edge but has a speed bull rush that can collapse the pocket. A veteran guy who doesn’t make a lot of splash plays but few mistakes as well. He has the added bonus of being able to play either outside linebacker spot, giving him a small boost in these rankings. He’s adequate in coverage, too.


12. Jarvis Jones

Jarvis has been a whipping boy of sorts, a first round pick who will probably never live up to expectations. He just isn’t that special type of pass rusher you think of when you take a guy like him in the first round. But in his defense, he’s turned into a solid run defender who can spill runs inside. He’s also dropping into coverage over 22% of the time, the most of any of the outside linebackers, naturally lowering his sack totals. His two sacks still equal Moats’ and James Harrison’s season totals. We’ve already probably seen his ceiling, 5-6 sacks if he gets 80% of the snaps in the future, but a solid player in every facet.

13. Antwon Blake 

He’s a difficult evaluation for this exercise. The much-maligned corner is clearly playing hurt and I bet he undergoes at least one procedure in the offseason, similar to Mike Mitchell a year ago. He’s been a below average tackler and his trademark phyicality has been limited by what looks to be injuries to both of his arms. He is actually a good playmaker when he gets eyes on the ball but too often, he gets greedy and looks back when running downfield, creating separation and big plays. He’ll never come close to a #1 CB in this league but when healthy, he can serve as a starter in a scheme that asks its corners to support the run, as the Steelers do.

14. James Harrison

Harrison is the baddest dude in the locker room and is doing what so few 37 year olds are capable of doing. Still, he’s been quiet for the most part of the season, and we’re simply looking at his play in a vacuum. Above average against the run, below average everywhere else. He’s having trouble collapsing the pocket on his bull rush and he is just another guy in coverage, who certainly can’t carry anyone down the seam. He’s limited at this point in his career and the knee injuries aren’t helping. You can still always get that lone game where he balls out but you can’t count on it anymore. Father Time never loses.

15. Vince Williams

There are few backup players with such a consensus, positive opinion than VW. The dude can hit, play the run, and is an overall tone setter. He is not tremendous in coverage but better than given credit for. Certainly not so dramatically bad that it isn’t worth having him on the field. He looks like a guy who could start full-time someday. I’d love for him to see snaps over Sean Spence when Shazier gets rotated out.

16. Daniel McCullers

The biggest change I’ve seen out of McCullers, who is just above that 10% threshold, is his heart and hustle. The guy chases everything downfield, even if it’s at a lumbering pace, Duke Johnson found out the hard way after getting blasted ten yards downfield last week. McCullers can win one-on-ones with his length and strength but he’s still too hot and cold in that regard. He hasn’t taken the leap that makes you feel comfortable in the team giving him a full-time gig in 2016.

17.  Will Allen

Allen has had his moments this year. He has shown the ability to thump and break up the ball downhill. But his age is catching up to him and he’s been exposed too many times this year. Whether it’s struggling vs Antonio Gates or missing Jamize Olawale versus the Oakland Raiders, Allen got his job back after returning from injury, to the surprise of some, myself included. With a great collection of off-the-field works, including his foundation, this could be his last year in the league. A nice career but one that is probably ready to end.

18. Sean Spence

I do love Spence’s story. A guy who overcame once seemingly impossible odds after a horrific knee injury his rookie year. He shouldn’t be playing today. Now, you forget that backstory and just enjoy watching him play football. But there’s nothing great about his game. Ok against the run, ok against the pass. I look for guys who can at least do something really well and I don’t see that with him. Though some of it has been scheme related, there have been too many false steps and late reaction times for my liking, putting him out of position for his run fills off the snap.

19. Cam Thomas

Thomas has not reached the level of awfulness as we saw last year, but the improvement is slight. With Tuitt ready, the team has taken full advantage, playing Thomas only when they have to. He can play the nose or end, arguably his best quality, and that’s what has kept him on this roster. But this year will be his last and Thomas will join Sean Mahan in Steelers’ folklore.

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