The Pittsburgh Steelers opened the 2020 season with one of the most talented defenses in the NFL, up and down the starting roster, from Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward up front to T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, and Devin Bush in the middle, with Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joe Haden, and Steven Nelson in the back, among other significant players.
The unfortunate reality is that they have lost some of those guys along the way, or others, either to season-ending injuries or more temporary injuries and ailments, and that has been a burden on this defense. It’s not an excuse, but it has required them to ask a lot of those who are unfamiliar with the terrain they’ve tread in recent weeks.
Two of those players are Marcus Allen and Alex Highsmith. The former has started the past two games at inside linebacker after converting to safety and having had under 100 snaps of defensive playing experience prior. Highsmith is a rookie edge defender coming out of a small school and is now starting on the right edge with Dupree done for the year.
Defensive captain Cameron Heyward mad sure to give them special mention on Wednesday while speaking to the media. “I commend what Marcus Allen has been doing”, he said. “We’re asking a 200-pound safety to play linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The stuff he’s doing is unheard of in our defense”.
“To think we’re at this point, we never thought we would be at this point, but Marcus is doing a heck of a job”, he added. “And so is Alex. To be thrown in on your rookie year, be starting, coming out of Charlotte, you couldn’t write a story like that”.
The question is, however, has this shifting of personnel limited their ability to run the defense that they want? “When we talk about vanilla, look about the team we just played. They only threw the ball 13 times, so it’s not like they were doing some exotic stuff”, he said. “They were just maintaining the clock, trying to bleed the clock”.
“We’ve got to do a better job of understanding that”, he added, “so then we can get more exotic down the road when we can get a lead. The whole game, we were just playing catch-up. We never really got to do what we wanted to do and get the pressure we wanted”.
Up next is a good Indianapolis Colts team with a quality offensive line, a competent run game, and a savvy veteran at quarterback capable of whipping the ball around the yard but doesn’t have to. It won’t be easy, and having some inexperienced pieces in there won’t help, but you play the hand you’re dealt, or you don’t play at all.