Where’s the beef?
That was the famous line of the Wendy’s commercials introduced in the mid-1980s that quickly stuck and has seemingly taken a life of its own, still remembered today. Its meaning is simple. Where’s the substance?
It’s a similar feeling to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense. They’ve done well to find competent players in Morgan Burnett and Jon Bostic. Leaders, strong communicators, the latter of which was a major issue to their demise a year ago. But it’s a unit that still feels empty, lacking in that substance.
Where’s the splash?
I’m asking this rhetorically but – who are the playmakers of this defense? The impact player able to create a turnover, turn the tide of the game, give Ben Roethlisberger and his high-powered offense a short field?
Ryan Shazier captained that role the last two seasons. His ability to knife his way into the backfield one play, drop into coverage and pick off a pass the next, rush the QB and force a fumble on another. There was no doubt who could make the crazy, one-in-a-million play, like his absurd interception against the Colts in 2017. A play the Steelers needed to jump back into that game.
Who is doing that in 2018? Not only was Shazier the leader, the communicator, the every down player, he was the beef. Now, his football future is in doubt and he’s not going to offer any on-field help this season.
The players brought in, Bostic and Burnett, are serviceable. There were quality, necessary moves for the front office to make. But splash? Don’t count on much of that.
In 32 career starts, Bostic has three sacks, one interceptions, and zero forced fumbles. Burnett is in a similar booth. 102 starts, nine interceptions, and only once – 2011, his sophomore season – has he had a year with more than two. Forced fumbles are the same story, eight in all, and even in Dom Capers blitz-happy scheme, sacks were fleeting.
There’s no one returning on the roster who looks to be that guy. Sean Davis will have a chance to showcase that ability at free safety but he hasn’t done much in his career to make me feel like he’s going to offer that impact. Switching to free safety doesn’t guarantee a spike in picks, just as it didn’t for Mike Mitchell. There’s Vince Williams, as much as I’m a fan, won’t be that guy. Artie Burns? Joe Haden? Unlikely, though I suppose Haden might be the team’s best shot.
Only Davis and Mike Hilton picked off more than one pass a year ago. In the run game, who can even come close to matching Shazier’s ability to put teams in 2nd and long, beyond the usual suspects along the defensive line?
Sure, the pass rush will help, though I’m concerned about how sustainable it’s going to be. But the defense needs guys to capitalize on those plays or pick the pass rush up in games where it isn’t getting home, like the playoff loss to Jacksonville (when teams go max protect and take vertical shots).
The draft is Pittsburgh’s best hope. And I hope that’s where a large portion of the focus is. Not to the extreme of selecting Gerod Holliman where the focus is solely on box score and not the tape. But they need to draft an inside linebacker or a safety, or both, who can make such an impact. That generally means good athletes but also players with the hands and ball skills to capitalize on those chances.
That’s what will take the defense to the next level. That’s how a good defense can become dominant or failing that, good enough to make up for its mistakes elsewhere.