When the Pittsburgh Steelers were at their recent height in the mid-00s, they got there by playing unrelenting, at times dominant defense. Although the offense certainly helped to get them there—the first time around with more of a controlled ground game—it was the defensive side of the ball that one could fairly say took the bulk of the responsibility for the team’s success.
It was during that time that it became a yearly tradition for media analysts—often merely retired players with no meaningful experience in sports analysis—to predict the inevitable demise of the vaunted defense, signaling that the unit was aging and slowing down and that it would not be long before they would no longer be able to carry the load.
It was long, indeed, before that happened, at least comparatively. The Steelers were able to keep the bulk of that unit together through the 2000s and a bit beyond—in some cases, admittedly, longer than they should have—but they remained a very competitive and still at times dominant unit long after they should have jumped the shark.
It is somewhat amusing, then to hear of the Steelers’ current defense spoken of with the opposite tones—not as a top unit falling off the precipice due to inevitable decline, but rather as a young group of players that are on the rise and budding to become a top defense. Some who follow the team closely may not agree with that assessment, but former Patriots linebacker Willie MicGinest was the latest to speak to that narrative.
Unfortunately, I wouldn’t exactly say that his observations were entirely on point, especially when it comes to the secondary, regarding which he said, “they’re getting better at the back end…they’re growing there, signing William Gay, and Shamarko Thomas, another young player that should emerge soon”.
Gay is certainly not a growing player, on the wrong side of 30 and in his 10th NFL season, having been a primary starter in the three years since returning to Pittsburgh. And citing Thomas as an emerging player has its obvious flaws, considering he is not even guaranteed to make the roster this season.
He followed on to say, “I just look at the talent, and you watch these guys play together and start to gel at some point. I think they’re going to be a pretty good unit”. Which is fair, and he went on to talk about the Steelers’ most recent first-rounders, linebackers Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree:
“They’ve shown flashes that they really can play. A guy like Bud Dupree can rush the passer, and he can also drop into coverage. Ryan Shazier is sometimes really explosive. Sometimes he overplays certain plays, but as he learns the game, things will slow down for him. But I just like how they think—I like their mentality. And I think they’re built to play in that system”.
The Steelers definitely do have an assortment of talent on the defensive side of the ball, particularly when it comes to the starting front seven, and they do indeed have the potential—potential—to become one of the better defenses in the league. But there is clearly work left to be done, including the acquisition of more talent.