The Pittsburgh Steelers feel they were able to upgrade the speed of their defense significantly this year with the additions of Steven Nelson, Mark Barron, and Devin Bush. The influx of athleticism at the inside linebacker position in particular has the chance of making the biggest difference between this season’s unit and the group a year ago that blew leads in five games in the fourth quarter out of the team’s seven losses or ties.
But the group is also getting faster through maturation, with younger players such as Terrell Edmunds and T.J. Watt continually getting more and more comfortable in their roles, able to play freer and looser, without thinking as much. At least for the latter, it’s been noticeable throughout the offseason.
“We’re flying around a lot faster than we were last year, especially around this time of year”, the told reporters earlier this week, per Teresa Varley and the team’s website. “We are playing really fast. That is the number one thing you are seeing”.
It’s all an extension of head coach Mike Tomlin’s philosophy. He believes that the game is primarily played through sub-package football now, with smaller and more athletic players, and he has largely geared his roster toward that end, expecting it to pay off both in the general performance category in in the production of takeaways.
“Even if we do miss some tackles this year, you are going to see another guy behind being able to clean the mess up”, said Watt, who missed his share of tackles a year ago. “I think that is going to be our distinct trait this year, being really fast around the ball. Just trying to create more turnovers, trying to be able to get the push up front and be more ball aware this year”.
While players should always be ‘ball-aware’, the Steelers have been taking a more active approach than we have ever seen in trying to train their players to not only get the ball out, but to be active in securing and recovering it. They recovered three fumbles last week, though previously, P.J. Locke failed to do so in the first preseason game and helped lead to what was nearly a tie game late.
It’s good to see that even the second unit has some players who are able to fly around, relative to their respective positions. Guys like Cameron Sutton, Ulysees Gilbert III, and Isaiah Buggs have shown the sort of traits outlined in this article that the team is looking to cultivate in its defense.
It’s one thing to get all the pieces in a pile, though, and another to put them all together. While the defense wasn’t nearly as bad as many like to say, at least relative to league-wide standards, it was obviously not good enough to get through the year in 2018. Which is why we saw such heavy investment toward change in March and April.