Have the Pittsburgh Steelers had a more talented defense on paper entering the 2019 season than at any other point since the last time that they played in the Super Bowl? It’s a fair question to wonder, but one that is best left to be revisited at the end of the year.
Almost every season since then, barring perhaps the 2011 season, the Steelers have had some glaring weakness or other on the defense, whether that was the secondary (usually) or the pass rusher (often enough) or the inside linebackers (more recently). Even the defensive line took a bit of transitioning to the Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt duo we now have.
But Heyward, their 2011 first-round pick, is now the grizzled veteran, and captain, of the defense, and has seen every unit come and go during that time period as he enters his eighth year. He is optimistic, but hesitant, about what he sees in this group.
“I like them”, he told Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review about the defense. “I want to fall in love with them this year”.
It’s hard to deny that possibility. Especially with the influx of Devin Bush, the 10th-overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft who will likely be an opening-day starter at this point and call the signals for this defense, this unit has talent at every level.
There is Heyward starting right up front. He has 20 sacks and two Pro Bowls over the past two years, and is as solid as they come. Tuitt is no slouch and is always primed for a breakout season, also coming off perhaps the second-best year of his career, and Javon Hargrave remains a budding star as he enters year four. The depth along the line is also as good as it has been since Brett Keisel was still a full-time starter.
Then you have another Pro Bowler at outside linebacker in T.J. Watt, and there is reason to believe, based on his performance during the preseason, that Bud Dupree should be at least as good as he has ever been and even slightly better. The depth here is now intriguing with the addition of some young talent.
No position has seen a bigger transformation than at inside linebacker with Bush at the top of the pecking order, followed by veteran free agent signing Mark Barron, and completed by Vince Williams and rookie Ulysees Gilbert III among defensive contributors.
Provided he stays healthy, Joe Haden remains their top cornerback, but they have a strong number two now in Steven Nelson, whom they spent good money on in free agency. The emergence of Cameron Sutton and Kameron Kelly gives them interesting options in sub-packages along with Mike Hilton.
Then you have Terrell Edmunds looking as though he is primed for that notable second-year jump, and Sean Davis—well, he will be Sean Davis. Wouldn’t it be incredible, though, if he ends up as their weakest starter? It could be a lot worse.