Over the course of their recent history, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense has seemed to be at its peak when they have had complementary players at the key interior positions of their defense. I am speaking of the bookend defensive ends, the inside linebackers, and the starting safety tandem.
Taking, for example, the 2008 roster, the Steelers had at defensive end Brett Keisel, who was and developed more into a pass rusher, which at times came at the expense of other responsibilities. But he had the highly-disciplined Aaron Smith on the other side of him.
At the back end of the defense, of course, there was All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu, who was already by that point in his career more or less doing his own reading and reacting. But he was able to do that within the defense because he had at his side a partner in Ryan Clark who know how and when to cover for him.
It became more true a bit later in the middle, but that was even the case to a degree between the starting tandem of James Farrior and Larry Foote. That was even more so the case when Lawrence Timmons entered the starting lineup. First Farrior, then Foote played the straight man to Timmons’ more liberal role, which at the time often including shadowing a running back or even a quarterback for large stretches of a game.
Do the Steelers have that today? Let’s take a look at the lineup and you be the judge.
There may be something to that dynamic between Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. Heyward is definitely the protégé of Smith, very disciplined. Tuitt may have greater athletic upside, but lacks the veteran’s greater fundamental technique—at least for now. still, it’s not quite the same relationship.
At the back end, we are in a transitional phase with second-year player Sean Davis only have a handful of starts under his belt. It’s really not clear right now what sort of chess piece he may be, but he did have a prominent role in blitzing late in the season. Yet many question Mike Mitchell’s dependability in terms of being the proverbial straight man to another player’s act—even if he did play with Polamalu in the veteran’s final season.
In the middle, it seemed that Timmons tried to evolve into the straight man to allow Ryan Shazier to do his thing, but I’m not quite sure that it ever happened. Vince Williams may be able to assume that role, but is he competent enough to actually prove to be an every-down starter, let alone a long-term solution?
The Steelers should consider how they evaluate these questions themselves within their current roster. It should go without saying that the dynamic between two players who by the nature of their position must work in tandem is crucial. If they find they are not satisfied with their answers, then it would be wise to try to address this issue in the draft so that they can play complementary, impactful yet disciplined defense.