In a rare occurrence, in this case thanks to none other than Le’Veon Bell, the Pittsburgh Steelers entered this offseason with a good chunk of change burning a hole in their salary-cap pocket. That allowed them to make some significant moves to work toward addressing and improving their defense, which lagged behind last season.
Thanks to the cap space of eight digits returned to the team by Bell for choosing not to sign his franchise tag, the Steelers were able to go out in free agency and spend, coming away, for the defense, with cornerback Steven Nelson for $26.5 million over three years and Mark Barron for $12 million over two.
Then, knowing that they are likely to receive a high compensatory pick for losing Bell in free agency, they were comfortable making a bold trade to move up in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft to grab inside linebacker Devin Bush. These three players add a lot of athleticism and potential playmaking ability to a unit that lacked both.
The unit’s captain, and eldest player, was asked about how these new faces have changed the defense. Said Cameron Heyward of the impact of players like Nelson, Bush, and Barron, “there’s a different confidence with our group”.
“I think having Vince back and Mark Barron and Devin Bush, I think there’s a lot of athletic ability in that group. And then you bring a guy like Steve Nelson in, it allows you to be more ambidextrous and allows us to just be not as predictable”, he went on. “I think Steve and move all around the field”.
He then mentioned Artie Burns, suggesting that you can move him inside, though I think it’s more likely that Nelson would move inside. But I think it’s worth pointing out that Heyward talked about him, signaling the likelihood that he is still going to play a role on the unit in 2019. The team has been giving him some first-team reps by holding Joe Haden out a bit.
“I think it just gives our defense a lot more athletic ability and just different looks we can do”, Heyward concluded in summarizing all of the personnel changes that have worked to transform the defense for the upcoming season.
They have flashes as a group—including showing indications of improving their ability to collect interceptions, though they have yet to even produce a forced fumble, let alone a recovered one—but as we all know, it won’t be until they have to product a lead with five minutes to play in the fourth quarter of an important game before we can really evaluate where they are.