For last season’s Steelers squad, there were many bright spots to build upon for the upcoming season. Getting after opposing quarterbacks was something the team was again elite at, as they led the league in sacks for a fifth straight season. This was due in large part to superstar T.J. Watt, who proved he was worth every penny of the $112 million deal he received just days before last season’s opener. He went on to tie the single-season sack record of 22.5, en route to bringing home his first NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award. The team’s single season rookie rushing record held by Hall of Fame RB Franco Harris was broken by rookie Najee Harris’ 1,200 yards. He’ll look to handle another voluminous work load this season as the team shifts from the Ben Roethlisberger era.
However, one area the team will look to improve in leaps and bounds is the performance of the run defense. I mean, they literally cannot be any worse than they were last year, as the ranked dead last in the entire league, yielding 146.1 yards per game and also 5.0 yards per carry. Not allowing a 100-yard rusher was usually commonplace for the early 2000s teams, which prided themselves on playing physical defense, and it obviously yielded great success with two Super Bowl wins. However, last season was a far cry from those days as the team gave up 165 yards to Joe Mixon, 205 to Dalvin Cook, 150 to Latavius Murray and 108 to D’Onta Foreman, among others.
For All-Pro defensive tackle and multi-time team captain Cam Heyward, he knows the run defense the team put on display last season was unacceptable, and he echoed those sentiments earlier today to Steelers reporter Teresa Varley via Steelers.com whenever she asked what area needed the most improvement.
“I know we have a lot of short-yardage, a lot of run-centric drills happening,” Heyward said to Varley. “Even if it’s not right today, it has to continue to improve. It’s up to the players to hold it down, make sure they are accountable and do what is needed. Too many times it might be 10 people right, one wrong and that hurts the defense.”
Injuries along the defensive front last season also played a huge part in the lack of success, as standout Stephon Tuitt missed the entire season due to the untimely death of his brother, coupled with a knee injury. Also, underrated nose tackle Tyson Alualu went down with a fractured ankle midway through the team’s Week 2 game, and just like that, two-thirds of the starting defensive line were gone. Heyward held his own while also posting ten sacks, but the rest of the line was filled in by rookies and street free agents. The inside linebacker play suffered as well, as opposing linemen frequently flowed to the second level, engulfing them.
Depth now appears to be an asset in this regard, as free agent signee Larry Ogunjobi is an adequate replacement for Tuitt, who retired. The team also spent their third-round draft choice on DeMarvin Leal out of Texas A&M. Alualu is back, and the team also brought back Montravius Adams, who was a late-season addition last season courtesy of the Saints’ practice squad, one who turned out to be a nice surprise.
With All-Pro talents at every level of the defense, including star free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, the arrow is clearly pointing up for the unit as the season looms. The pieces of the puzzle are in place for not only a vast improvement in the run defense, but for the defense to reclaim its status as one of the most feared across the league. Heyward clearly emphasized this, as he fully understands what this defense is capable of, but he stated it’s time to do less talking and just go out and execute.
“If they execute, they don’t need to talk about being a dominant defense with each other. The results will come on their own. But we feel like when we step on the field, we should be the No. 1 defense in that game,” Heyward added, via Steelers.com.