Depending on what happens with Antonio Brown over the course of the next two months, I don’t think that the Pittsburgh Steelers face a bigger question about their on-field performance than whether or not they have a front seven that is capable of closing games—something that they did not display, or at least often enough, in 2018.
The Steelers held a lead, or at least a share of it, in the fourth quarter of the majority of the games that they failed to win in 2018. The only exceptions were their first two losses, to the Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens. They got out to big deficits early before storming back by halftime, but petered out in the second half.
Make no mistake, Pittsburgh actually has a good amount of talent in the front seven, four players specifically. There is Cameron Heyward, their defensive captain, who leads the way, and second-year T.J. Watt emerging as perhaps their next great defender. Though still seeking consistency, both Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave are very talented.
The inside linebacker position, however, still leaves much to be desired, and it’s hard to buy into a significant jump from Bud Dupree at this point in his career. While he is not a frequent liability, he hasn’t been anything very close to a difference-maker.
It’s with this background that I approached Pro Football Focus’ rankings of the front sevens of each team in the league, and I wasn’t surprised to see that the Steelers did not make the top 10, though they did finish in the top half of the NFL, placing 14th.
“Don’t look now, but T.J. Watt started putting it all together as a pass rusher down the stretch this season”, Michael Renner wrote. “More of a weapon as a blitzer and on stunts his first season, Watt started winning his one-on-one’s far more consistently the second half of this season. Only Von Miller had a higher pass-rushing grade than Watt from the start of Week 11”.
It’s no surprise that he would focus on Watt, who certainly had the biggest impact on the team this year. He led the way with 13 sacks, the most that any Steelers defender had recorded since 2009, and his six forced fumbles are also the most since 2008 when James Harrison forced seven fumbles.
The areas to target for improvement are overwhelmingly obvious. Better and more consistent play from the inside linebacker position is very much a need, and it will be a top priority along with cornerback I’m sure this offseason. Another edge defender will probably be harder to come by, but they could definitely use another one too.
By no means is this a pass for the secondary of course, and as I mentioned another cornerback, or even two, is very much needed. The sub-package play is in need of an upgrade. But the front seven has to do its job in the clutch too, and that includes the inside linebackers in coverage, which was a big issue.