For the bulk of the past decade, the primary focus for the Pittsburgh Steelers has been on the offensive side of the ball. It was quite soon after their last Super Bowl appearance that their defense entered a rapid decline, with their stars from the championship years getting long in the tooth and the front office failing to adequately replace them. It’s why they’ve used seven consecutive first-round picks on defensive players.
They have had some setbacks in their plans for the defense that were out of their hands, namely Ryan Shazier’s injury, and admittedly the defense was looking better in 2016 and 2017 leading up to that calamity. But by and large, it has been an inadequacy of evaluation, acquisition, instruction, and execution all rolled up into one that has left them short of a championship unit.
The Steelers are looking to shift some of the balance back to the defense now with some significant defensive acquisitions this offseason, most notably Devin Bush, Jr. and cornerback Steven Nelson. But the back end still remains largely weak or at least unproven, if not on the wrong side of their careers.
That’s why Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus recently argued that the defense is “going to rely on pressure” to find its success this year, a statement that he made during a 28-minute roundtable discussion about the AFC North that they hosted on YouTube recently.
Haden has played alright. I think they needed a replacement for Artie, I think he’s certainly struggled over the last couple of years. But Bush’s coverage ability as a linebacker I think is gonna be valuable and his blitzing ability [as well]. Vince Williams isn’t great in coverage but he can blitz a little bit, so I think you’re gonna get back to—they’re gonna rely on pressure a little bit. T.J. Watt has been one of their better edge rushers in a while. Bud Dupree is still below average in that respect, but they scheme it up, they get after you. It’s the blitz pressure that they’re gonna want.
Perhaps it’s worth mentioning for the “these guys never played football” crowd that, while that has always been a myth, Bruce Gradkowski is now a prominent member of their staff, and took part in the roundtable discussion as well. He’s far from the only former player who is a part of their outlet in some capacity.
The Steelers have led or tied for the lead in sacks in each of the past two seasons, and their pressure percentage relative to the league average has improved over the last several years as well. Even so, 2019 could also see one of their better coverage units in years at the same time, even if that isn’t saying much.