The next time the Pittsburgh Steelers defense takes the field on Sunday, the unit is going to look a fair bit different than it did during the preseason opener. While they still figure to be missing a couple of starters, they should be getting back three on the field for the second game.
Last week, the defense found themselves without a key pass-rusher as well as two members of their starting secondary, all young players who are expected to be crucial to the development of their defense over the course of the next several years.
And, really, this is supposed to be the year that we really start to get a pulse on these players and what they are going to be down the road. They are Bud Dupree, Artie Burns, and Sean Davis, all three of whom cracked the starting lineup during their rookie seasons.
Dupree, a first-round draft pick in 2015, surprised by gaining playing time immediately, though he was not yet starting. He rotated heavily at the left outside linebacker position and even recorded a couple of sacks in his first two games.
Burns was the Steelers’ first-round draft pick a year ago, and also surprised by how much he played. Despite missing some of training camp, he even played immediately in the dime defense. He then graduated to nickel and then the starting lineup by midseason at cornerback.
Pittsburgh drafted Davis, the safety, in the second round last year as part of a philosophy of rebuilding their secondary. He started in the slot right away by necessity but quickly took a back seat before beginning to rotate at safety mid-season, then taking over the starting job.
All three of these key players missed the Steelers’ preseason opener, a game in which they would have played in spite of the fact that they are all regarded as full-time starters. None of them have even a full season’s worth of starting experience under their belt, so the playing time would be valuable.
Last week, the Steelers’ starting lineup consisted of—among other reserves—Coty Sensabaugh, a depth free agency signing, starting in place of Burns; Robert Golden, a career backup, starting for Davis; and Arthur Moats, a veteran reserve who lost his starting job three years in a row, starting for Dupree.
Not that any of those three players did poorly—Moats actually had a very good game—but the point is that it was not particularly representative of what the Steelers’ defense is supposed to look like in 2017.
Even though the team will still be without Mike Mitchell and Ryan Shazier come Sunday, they will have the rest of their group on-hand, and that should give us a much better sense of where this unit stands right now. And that I very much look forward to seeing, even playing vanilla defense against a vanilla offense.