While I think it can be pretty safely agreed upon that the Pittsburgh Steelers defense made significant, and perhaps sustainable strides last season, it is also obviously a unit that still has a long way to go particularly with respect to being able to better defend the pass.
They are also still, literally, a team in transition on the defensive side of the ball, because they are already guaranteed to be incorporating at least three new players into the starting lineup in comparison to last season. And that has been much the case—swapping in two or three new starters—for a few years now. But the latest might be the most interesting, and exciting, even if it might not yield immediate results.
The most obvious new starter is also the least significant due to the prominence of sub-packages in their defense, but with the free agent departure of Steve McLendon during the offseason, the Steelers have o choice but to work in a new nose tackle.
There are two options on that front, among them third-year veteran Daniel McCullers, who has not played a significant role yet in the defense during his first two seasons, but did miss a quarter of last year due to an ankle injury. Also in the mix is rookie Javon Hargrave.
While the rest of the front seven looks likely to stay intact, at least from where they left off by the end of the season, there will be some changes in the secondary, as both starting cornerback Antwon Blake and starting safety Will Allen are gone. Both players started every game in which they were healthy, though Blake’s playing time varied by the end of the year.
Blake signed a free agent contract elsewhere, and the most likely player to fill his shoes in the starting lineup is the same player who filled his shoes in the nickel defense late last season, Ross Cockrell. Cockrell played 60 percent of the team’s snaps this year, but almost none of it came in their 3-4 defense, and all of it was as an outside corner.
Allen has not been re-signed yet this offseason, and if he does, it figures to be late, during training camp, but even if he is re-signed, it will not be to resume his starting spot. Robert Golden will likely begin the season there after he played four games in that position while Allen was out with an ankle injury.
Rookie Sean Davis could vie for the starting job, but he will likely contribute in some capacity either way, perhaps as a quarter package third safety in opposite passing downs, which is the role that Golden served by the end of last season.
Bud Dupree is the only other predictable change from the start of last season, but he entered the starting lineup during the final quarter of his rookie year, as Stephon Tuitt did the year before. He should see his playing time increase this year, even though he did play significant snaps last year.