As tough as it is when actively competing, going against the best competition there is benefits any team or group. That provides an in-house advantage for many in the NFL, specifically groups like the Kansas City defense, the Baltimore offense, and both sides of the ball for Tampa Bay.
That benefit also extends to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense, which, as it tries to improve its passing game, rebuild its running game, and develop a new offensive line with a major mean streak, is getting most of its practice in against the Steeler defense during training camp. That defense, one of the NFL’s best and littered with Pro Bowl experience, is a group that can help bring out the best from the team’s offense during the August prep for the start of the season in September.
“It’s great man, you can think about our defense: We’ve probably got at least seven to eight first-rounders starting on our defense, which is amazing,” wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said following camp Sunday, speaking with NFL Network. “Going against a defense like this day in day out, in the future, we’re playing against other teams, it’s like, ‘Wow, it was a lot easier than going against our own defense.'”
Among the projected 11 starters for the Steelers’ defense, seven of them are former first-round picks, including all but one player in the secondary and along the offensive line. And of the other four, three were drafted in either the second or third rounds, with only Robert Spillane (undrafted) a starter that came from Day 3 or the UDFA market.
That pedigree has translated into allowing the third-fewest yards and points in the NFL last season, after allowing the fifth-fewest in both the season prior. Pittsburgh is on a four-year streak of finishing in the bottom six in total yards allowed defensively.
The defensive line of Cameron Heyward, Tyson Alualu, and Stephon Tuitt is about the best group in the league for a rebuilt O-Line to take reps and learn from, T.J. Watt can test any young tackle off the edge, and Minkah Fitzpatrick is an on-field coach who can throw off entire pass plays with how he reads the field.
As a receiver, Smith-Schuster in particular cited the work Fitzpatrick’s secondary has done to help challenge he and his fellow group of younger, potential starters at the position, as well as long-time quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. That secondary also features two other first-rounders: Cornerback Joe Haden, and safety Terrell Edmunds.
“Something that they’ve done better is disguising plays, showing late coverage, and that’s helping us be able to read plays and be able to read the defense, late reads and all that,” Smith-Schuster said.