What Defensive Position Should Pittsburgh Prioritize In 2022?

As a Steelers fan, there have been multiple times you have probably heard “the sky is falling/ door is closed” talk regarding the Pittsburgh Steelers and their chances to be title contenders. The team currently sits at 5-3-1 after a disappointing tie with the Detroit Lions on Sunday, still mathematically in the playoff race and just behind the Baltimore Ravens for the division lead in the AFC North. On the other hand, Pittsburgh currently is dealing with a ravaged roster, having Ben Roethlisberger and Minkah Fitzpatrick on the COVID list along with T.J. Watt, Kevin Dotson, Trai Turner, and Joe Haden all suffering injuries against Detroit to add to Chase Claypool who hopes to return this week.

These injuries seem to be in more of the mild variety than that of JuJu Smith Schuster who was lost for the season after sustaining a shoulder injury earlier this year along with Tyson Alualu who fractured his ankle early in the 2021 campaign. Add that to DE Stephon Tuitt who has yet to participate in practice after dealing with his own knee injury in the offseason along with the tragic death of his brother, and you have a team that is attempting to limp its way into the postseason. Granted, other teams like Baltimore are dealing with numerous injuries to most of their roster, but they still have their franchise signal caller that can catch lightning in a bottle when necessary.

The fact of the matter is, Pittsburgh doesn’t have that anymore in Roethlisberger, at it has been stated numerous times on The Terrible Podcast with Dave Bryan and Alex Kozora that the Steelers need to have everything right around Ben to be successful. This means having a running game you can lean on in close games to chew clock and keep the ball away from the opposing offense as well as a talented defense that can force turnovers and short fields for your offense to capitalize on. The running game has been up-and-down to say the least, and Ben’s play has been anything but spectacular making Steelers fans and “draft analysts” alike clamor for a QB or an OL early in the 2022 NFL Draft.

The question will be whether Pittsburgh thinks a QB or OL is worthy of their draft slot wherever they end up over what they have in-house or what they could potentially bring in via free agency. Instead of focusing on the offensive side of the ball, though, I want to direct attention to the defensive side of the ball and the potential needs Pittsburgh will be facing there moving forward. Alex Kozora did a great job breaking down how the Lions ran effectively on the Steelers defensive front, having given up 11 carries 20+ yards this season which is the most allowed in the league currently.

A lot of this to come down to not having Tuitt or Alualu in the middle to shut down the middle in the run game. Alualu will be 35 next season, bringing into question whether he will want to have another go-around after coming off major ankle surgery.

The same could be said for Tuitt in all reality as the team hasn’t had any word on him in months, raising questions about his own health with the knee as well as where his mind may still be after losing his brother. Tuitt will be 29 and currently has nearly a $14 million cap charge in 2022 vis Over The Cap but given the shadiness of the situation that so closely resembles what happened to David DeCastro this offseason makes be personally wonder if Tuitt will ever play another down in Pittsburgh.

When the defense has missed 71 tackles so far on the season, you know somethings need to be changed going forward. Part of the issue can be the situation at inside linebacker with Devin Bush failing to play at the level of a Top-10 draft selection that Pittsburgh made him back in 2019, appearing to have lost that aggressive demeanor and dynamic range we saw from him as a rookie. He is coming off ACL surgery from last season but has since dealt with a groin issue in 2021 as well as had various episodes on social media, calling into question whether Bush is mentally right at this time.

The play of Bush along with the understanding that Robert Spillane isn’t cut out for a full-time starting position prompted Pittsburgh to trade for Joe Schobert in the preseason from Jacksonville. Schobert hasn’t been awful during his time in Pittsburgh, but he stands to make $9.72 million in 2022, making you wonder if Pittsburgh will decide to pay that full salary when they could decide to move on with no penalty.

Cornerback is another position that looks to be coming to a crossroads for this team as they already lost Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson this offseason and have Joe Haden, Arthur Maulet, and Ahkello Witherspoon scheduled to be free agents after this season. Haden will be 33 next season if Pittsburgh decides to risk retaining him, leaving a chance for a potential drop in play at his age. Cam Sutton, James Pierre, and Tre Norwood have had moments of success and look to be promising young players moving forward but trusting those three to be the locked-in starters in Pittsburgh’s nickel package in 2022 may be a stretch over another free agent or highly regarded draft prospect.

As far as the safety position goes, Terrell Edmunds is scheduled to become a free agent after the season and Minkah Fitzpatrick hasn’t exactly played his best ball compared to his lofty standards in 2021. The hate he receives from Pro Football Focus regarding his ranking may be taken out of proportion, but he has yet to record a turnover in 2021 and currently ranked fourth in the entire NFL in missed tackles with 11, steadily getting worse each season since arriving in Pittsburgh as charted by Steelers Depot contributor Josh Carney.

While many will point to the QB or the offensive line as the obvious needs that need to be addressed, the defense appears to be on a fast track to decline in 2022 if subsequent players mentioned above are either released, retire, or aren’t retained. This would leave the cupboards bare for Pittsburgh on the defensive side of the ball, as a rookie QB will likely need to lean on a successful run game and stout defense much like Ben currently requires having any sort of immediate success in his first couple of seasons. Thus, addressing the glaring needs on defense and keeping a strength a strength likely may be Pittsburgh’s best shot at remaining competitive, regardless of who is under center.

It remains to be seen what direction Pittsburgh will go and what they may prioritize heading into free agency and the draft next offseason. Still, focusing on building an identity through the defense and in the running game and inserting a rookie QB in 2023 and finding a stopgap QB like Marcus Mariota or Jacoby Brissett who have started games and provide mobility at the QB position in 2022 may be the way to go for Pittsburgh to field a team that can win in 2022 and best set them up for success in the future.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense and their outlook going forward? Are there several positions that stick out to you as areas the team needs to address this offseason? What are your thoughts on prioritizing the defense over a rookie QB in Pittsburgh’s situation? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!

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