When the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 3-4 defense was at its height about a decade ago, it was revered for its complexity and nuance run under then-defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. The downside was the he required veteran players with time spent in the system to run it. The upside was that, having that, there was so much more you could do within it.
The Steelers had the luxury of a veteran-laden roster. they could even slowly bring their high rookie draft picks along. Lawrence Timmons, Ziggy Hood, and Cameron Heyward, the first three defensive first-round draft picks under Mike Tomlin, all took years to enter the starting lineup.
Times changed, coordinators changed, and so has the complexity of the defense, largely by necessity. In part because of the way that the game and the pay-scale has changed, and also in part simply due to a dearth of talent, the Steelers have found that they more frequently require their young defensive players to get on the field as early as possible.
With that comes a defensive system that is more intuitive and easier to digest. In fact, seventh-round rookie defensive tackle Joshua Frazier even recently said that he felt “the playbook here is a little bit easier than what we had when I was at Alabama”. And it’s important to remind you that his position coach is the same man it has been for the past two years.
Starting with Jarvis Jones, the Steelers have gotten their young defensive players on the field at least by their second season, often entering the starting lineup by then, if not sooner. Jones started for much of his rookie year in 2013, though he was in and out of the lineup after that.
They have used every first-round pick since then on a defensive player, and all of them have entered the starting lineup at least by the end of their rookie season. There was Ryan Shazier in 2014, who was a day-one starter. Then Bud Dupree took over the starting role late in his rookie season after rotating previously.
In 2016, Artie Burns opened the season as the dime back, graduate to the nickel, and finally was a starter about halfway through the year. Last year, T.J. Watt was a wall-to-wall starter, the Steelers’ first on the defensive side of the ball since Kendrell Bell. Even Shazier lost his job due to injuries and practice time missed because of it.
It hasn’t been just first-round picks, of course. There was Stephon Tuitt in 2014, and Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave in 2016. Even a veteran like Joe Haden, who was able to come in shortly before the regular season began and started right away, is a testament to the defense having been simplified in recent years.
Frazier is hoping to make good use of that fact in his push to earn a spot on the 53-man roster. fellow rookies Terrell Edmunds and Marcus Allen will also be vying for roster spots or roles over the course of the next several weeks.