When the Pittsburgh Steelers defense takes the field, they will be doing so with a unit that looks dramatically different from the one that they fielded the last time they found themselves in the AFC Championship Game, six seasons ago.
After all, only three players on the Steelers’ roster on the defensive side of the ball were even with the team then—and they are all still starting, as a matter of fact, those thirty-somethings being James Harrison, their right outside linebacker, Lawrence Timmons, their buck inside linebacker, and William Gay, their slot cornerback.
The entirety of their defensive roster outside of those three players, however, not just their starting lineup, is made up of new faces. And even some of the free agents that they have since brought in, with minor exceptions—namely, starting free safety Mike Mitchell and reserve outside linebacker Arthur Moats—were not even in the league six years ago.
The Steelers drafted Cameron Heyward the draft after that season, to give you some perspective about what the nucleus of this defense is now. It is built primarily on the back of the past three drafts, and is finally coming together—hopefully at just the right time.
Of course, we know all about the Steelers’ three rookie starters on defense this year, since they have frequently been a topic of conversation. Right cornerback Artie Burns, strong safety Sean Davis, and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave have all more than earned their keep on the field, and are starting because they are the best players at their positions.
While the team has not gotten the fully second-year contributions that they were hoping for, the second-half spark that Bud Dupree has provided at the left outside linebacker position should not be overlooked. He recorded four and a half sacks in his final four regular season games, and he split a sack and provided a quarterback hit that led to an interception in two postseason games.
Then, of course, you have a pair of studs from the first two rounds of the 2014 NFL Draft in mack inside linebacker—and signal-caller—Ryan Shazier, and defensive end Stephon Tuitt, whose importance to the defense increased by an order of magnitude when Heyward went down for the year against the Cowboys.
That is six defensive starters from the past three drafts—Burns, Davis, Hargrave, Dupree, Shazier, and Tuitt—with free agent Ross Cockrell finishing off the lineup at the left cornerback spot. Cast off by the Bills after his second training camp last season, the Steelers scooped him up off the trash heap and he has turned into quite a find since then.
The Steelers have a nucleus of talent on the defensive side of the ball that is going to last for years to come. Of course, they will still have their work cut out for them when it comes time to replace Harrison, Timmons, and Gay—unless Senquez Golson can be the answer for the latter—but their young talent on defense is impressive.