There’s no question the Pittsburgh Steelers made attempts to upgrade their defense this offseason. Two defensive players, Cam Sutton and T.J. Watt, selected with the team’s first three picks. Ridding themselves of Jarvis Jones, who only held the pass rush back. And going with more youthful legs in Vince Williams, who should perform at a similar level as Lawrence Timmons.
Tack on the progression Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, Artie Burns, Sean Davis, and Bud Dupree will see and there’s reason for optimism.
Except one thing. And it’s a big one.
Without adding a safety to the mix, the Steelers’ defense still doesn’t have an answer for the new-age tight ends. They tried to fix it. The safeties they looked at in the pre-draft process were all rated highly: Josh Jones, Marcus Maye, Jabrill Peppers, Obi Melinfonwu. The organization wasn’t looking for just depth or an eventual replacement for Mike Mitchell. It was to bring someone in for their dime packages day one.
When that didn’t work out – perhaps the closest they got was Jones being scooped off the board one pick ahead in the second round – they moved on. It was the right move, a worthwhile gamble, that didn’t pay off.
But it’s still a problem. One without a solution.
As we’ve written several times, the Steelers have tried to run dime packges the past two years with Robert Golden manning that spot. But Golden isn’t the right guy for it, unable to match up with top-tier athletic tight ends like Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski’s the obvious name to talk about but far from the only one.
In their own division, they’ll be matching up against Tyler Eifert and now David Njoku, drafted by the Browns, twice a year. They’ve handled Eifert well-enough but he’s still a headache. Njoku is 246 pounds running 4.64 and jumped 37.5 inches at the Combine.
Who handles him?
It can’t always be Mitchell and Davis. Especially on third and long if the Steelers want to run a two high shell, something they often did, and play 2 Man. Or when offenses go empty and isolate matchups, exposing your weakest ones. That’s been the blueprint of the New England Patriots and the Steelers seldom have an answer. Force a starting safety on a tight end every time and you limit yourself schematically.
These issues don’t happen just within the division either. The entire schedule is littered with that type of threat. Kyle Rudolph in Week 2. Travis Kelce – again – four weeks later. Eric Ebron in Week 8. Martellus Bennett in late November and Gronkowski pays the Steelers another visit in what’s likely to be a pivotal Week 15 throwdown. Gronk and Kelce are two players the team could easily see in the playoffs just as they did in 2016.
That’s not to say all those guys are as good as Gronk. Ebron, for example, isn’t. But the principle, and the matchup, remains the same. Height/weight/speed tight ends who pose a threat on every down. And if Golden is the answer to that again, the defense is worse off for it.
At least last year, they toyed with the idea of using Justin Gilbert to moderate success against the Chiefs. I’m not certain they even have a guy like that on the roster this time around. Coty Sensabaugh? Brian Allen is too raw to handle that.
It was the perfect year to bring in that type of player. It’s why signing Timmons to decent money and Dont’a Hightower to elite coin didn’t make sense. Do that and you obligate yourself to playing him on every down, making the dime safety a tough position to use. With Timmons gone and Hightower thankfully passed over, Vince Williams was the perfect two-down linebacker. Cheap, strong against the run, physical as anyone. It made schematic and financial sense to bring in the top-tier dime safety.
This position is an ever-popular one in the league and a hole many teams have filled. Pittsburgh, unfortunately, is still on the outside looking in. To steal the line from George Carlin.
It’s a big club. And you ain’t in it.
I get it. They tried, they clearly wanted to, but it didn’t happen. It’s unfortunate.
And it’s going to hold this defense back in 2017.