There is nothing more essential to executing a varied defense at a high level than having a complete unit composed of individuals with great comfort and familiarity in the system. The Pittsburgh Steelers had four starters on defense last year who were new to the system in Steven Nelson, Devin Bush, Mark Barron, and then Minkah Fitzpatrick.
This year, there are no new moving parts. While Javon Hargrave is gone, his role will be substituted from within, so there will be no slowdown. For veterans like Joe Haden, that’s exciting, because it means that the playbook opens up further, starting with the ability to be more aggressive, with Bush’s comfort level taking center stage in that regard.
“I think it’s helping him out so much is coming into the same defense, being able to be a whole lot more comfortable”, Haden told reporters earlier today about Bush coming into his second year and how that will enable the defense to call more aggressive plays. “I think having him is going to help us out a whole lot, too, because the other guys, just Steve [Nelson], everybody’s in”.
“The thing about it is that we still run the same defenses”, he continued. “So, as long as you can you get the checks, you get the shifts and everything down, I mean, we have vets there now, so everybody’s able to do different and everybody’s going to be on the same page”.
Specifically, Haden mentioned the possibility of playing more zero coverage on the back end, leading to more blitzes, because they have a comfort level in knowing that they have the pass rush from guys like T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, and the like, who can get into the backfield, as well as the secondary to hold things down one-on-one until they do.
“We always say, pass rush and coverage work together, and I think we’ve got a great rush team with some really, really good people in the back end that can cover”, he continued, and truly, he’s not wrong. The Steelers did lead the NFL in sacks last season while having 20 interceptions, second-most in the league to the New England Patriots.
Haden is now going into his fourth season with the Steelers and 11th in the NFL. The others mentioned above, sans Barron, now gone, are all entering their second season in the defense, but they all played full-time roles last season, and only Bush is coming out of his rookie year.
This may well be the best opportunity for the defense that they will have in a long time, with as close to an ideal combination of experience and youth and talent that they are likely to find, perhaps the most complete defensive starting lineup they have had this past decade. They already got results last year. Now it’s about sustaining and building upon it, taking it to the next level.