Tom’s Ten Preseason Takes: Steelers’ Defense

Here is preseason version of Ten Takes that will be split into two parts.  There will be one about the offense and one about the defense. This will be 5 thoughts on each about the roster and preseason and what to keep an eye on over the next four weeks.

2020 Preseason

1. Nobody Nose – Losing Javon Hargrave in free agency was a tough one. I felt he was underutilized while in Pittsburgh but the coaching staff knows way more than I ever will. They don’t have a true nose tackle on the roster to fill the spot and waited until very late in the draft to take a defensive lineman. So if they didn’t use the good player while they had him and didn’t address the “need” early in the draft then what is the plan?

I’m thinking the plan is to move away from traditional three man fronts and use more four man fronts treating T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree more like defensive ends. They could then use three linebackers getting the athletic Ulysses Gilbert on the field or play Terrell Edmunds in the hybrid linebacker spot.  Tyson Alualu is more than capable to handle the nose when necessary and I think Isaiah Buggs could fit there as well but overall I think we could see even less of the 3-4 than last year.

2. Rush From Behind – The Steelers have four players with double digit sack potential in Watt, Dupree, Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt . That is a formidable pass rushing attack. After those four, where to do the sacks and pressures come from? The likely other defensive lineman (Alualu, Buggs and Daniel McCullers) combined for 1 sack, 3 QB hits and 7 pressures over 638 snaps.  Not good. Chris Wormley is considered a better run defender than pass rusher and he produced 1.5 sacks, 6 QB hits and 10 pressures by himself.

The two returning outside linebackers got infrequent chances to play but Ola Adeniyi and Tuzar Skipper combined for half a sack, 1 QB hit and 1 pressure (those were by Skipper as a New York Giant) in 102 defensive snaps. Alex Highsmith has potential but he won’t like see the field much either. Those top four had better stay healthy.

3. Don’t Look Too Deep? – Along the same lines as the pass rush the positional depth in the defensive back field is a bit of a concern as well. The depth at inside linebacker is untested with a second year player coming off an injury and a midseason signee. Behind the starting safeties you have limited defensive experience and uninspiring options to play free safety. How bad is the depth there? They signed a guy who missed nearly one out of every five tackle opportunities when he was a starter elsewhere.

Behind the starting corners you have Cam Sutton who could fill in and no game experience behind that.  Injuries are going to happen and the next man up has to be ready and there are always additions prior to week one.  Inside linebacker, free safety and a veteran corner should be on the list.

4. Show Me More – Here are some things I’d like to see more of this year. Sutton being used as a safety on nickel and dime defenses.  He was rotated there at times last year and I think he could provide more ball production on deep throws.  Edmunds in the Barron role.  Last year Barron’s average depth of target was 3.8 yards from scrimmage and averaged allowing 6.2 yards after the catch.  Edmunds was targeted on average 11.5 yards from scrimmage and allowed 3 yards after the catch. Play Edmunds closer to the LOS where he can play closer to his receiver. It’ll give him a chance to make more plays on the ball and cut down on the YAC for RB’s and TE’s.  Get Buggs more snaps.  He showed improvement throughout the season and has earned a bigger role.

5. A Year Too Soon? – Last year in my Ten Takes after the Tennessee preseason game I said that I was all in the defense. I said, “Not only do I think they have the talent and athleticism to be good but maybe more importantly I think they know they can be good.” I followed that up by saying they could be, wait for it, “legendary”.  I was called out for using that word and rightfully so but I was on the right path.  This was obviously before the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade and that was a huge piece to the defense.

The majority of the defense returns. There should be a second year improvement by Devin Bush. You get more of Vince Williams. And I expect much improvement and maybe a change in coverage role for Edmunds.  We saw what kind of moxie they had as group last year keeping the team in every game.

I was overzealous in my use of the term legendary last year but I saw the potential for greatness in the group and my feeling remains the same.

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