It’s hard to recall a time that the Pittsburgh Steelers have ever more materially invested in the defensive side of the ball in one offseason than they have this year, signing two notable players in free agency in Mark Barron at inside linebacker and Steven Nelson at cornerback, then trading up into the top 10 during the draft to get Devin Bush.
All three of those players figure to play a prominent role on Sunday against the New England Patriots, are arguably address the areas in which the team has been weakest on that side of the ball for at least the past couple of seasons. Will it make a difference? Do they sense that they’re a more complete unit?
Defensive coordinator Keith Butler wouldn’t go that far while addressing reporters yesterday, declining to say out right that this is the ‘most equipped’ his defense has been against Tom Brady. “I know a lot of people have said that”, he told reporters via the team’s media department. “I think it is one of the fastest defenses we have had in a while”.
That is certainly the case at inside linebacker, especially whenever Bush and Barron might be on the field at the same time together. The tandem of Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons was fast as well while that lasted, and Timmons and James Farrior had its athleticism, but with overall team speed, this is a pretty strong contender, including along the defensive line.
“We had some fast defenses when we were in the Super Bowls and stuff like that”, Butler reminded. Most notable would be somebody like cornerback Ike Taylor, who had truly elite speed, as well as Troy Polamalu at safety. The Steelers of this iteration don’t have the players to match that.
“We will see how it is”, the defensive coordinator said of his current group. “That team back then was good because they could run, and they were smart and played together well. We will see how we play together. That is how it is going to determine how good we are”.
It’s worth noting that that is something defensive captain Cameron Heyward has been talking about a lot over the past two seasons, particularly in the second half of the 2017 season. He felt that too often players weren’t trusting in their teammates to be where they’re supposed to be or carrying out their assignments, which is essential to playing as an 11-man unit.
This might be a fast group, but can they all play together with cohesion, and can they do it right from the outset against the team that will arguably test them more than any other that they face this year in terms of stressing such points of weakness? We’ll find out in a couple of days.