Reader Correspondence: Why loading up on specialty front seven players is critical for the Steelers

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Focusing on the well-rounded defensive front seven player is modus operendi in Pittsburgh. It's smart, considering salary cap and roster limitations within the NFL, but the versatility provided by the proverbial "1-trick ponies" can be a huge benefit.

Hi Neal,

It appears the Steelers are rebuilding their defense through free agency.  If Alex Carrington signs, the D-Line will have gotten younger and better.  Adding Mike Mitchell and Cam Thomas puts the defense a CB and ILB away from being greatly improved, leaving the draft to upgrade the offense.

If it's Gilbert or Dennard at No. 15 as many draftniks predict, Allen Robinson will probably be available in Round 2 as Ben's tall WR.  I've always contended that over a career, a great offensive player will score more touchdowns than any defensive player will prevent.  The NFL is now a passing league.  Is gaining Gilbert or Dennard worth losing Evans or Benjamin, or maybe Ebron?  Any thoughts as to how the Steelers may be leaning?

Maybe it's a chicken vs. the egg argument, what's more important, stacking up passing targets or loading up on guys who prevent passing targets from catching the ball?

Personally, I'm a fan of finding guys to hit the guy throwing the ball. Seems easier to rush the passer than to defend the pass. Quarterbacks are just too good, offenses are just too centered around their sustained success and the rules are too slanted in their favor for me to think defending the guy catching the ball is easier than limiting the amount of time the guy throwing it has in a comfortable way.

The issue here is the fact times have changed. The Steelers built their defensive empire under Dick LeBeau with their ability to find flawed defensive ends and convert them into outside linebackers. Joey Porter was a third round pick in 1999. He's easily in the first round today (probably higher than 17, where the Steelers selected Jarvis Jones, the first 3-4 outside linebacker they've ever taken in the first round). Green Bay, among many teams, transitioned to a 3-4 look in 2009, and selected Clay Matthews with a pick in the late 20s. He's a top three pick today.

The evolution of the game has been studied by 32 teams in the league, and clearly, they've gotten wise to the immediate and long-term value of a pass rusher, regardless of that player's ability to defend the run.

That said, I think it's high-time the Steelers stop worrying so much about a defensive player's skill against the run and start focusing simply on players who explode off the snap and can get penetration.

In other words, I'm contradicting an earlier statement about Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald. If he's on the clock at 15 (unlikely, given the need for the position and for the reasons I listed), it's not a bad idea.

Perhaps staying in the box with a "business as usual" stance is part of the reason the team hasn't registered more than 35 sacks in the last three seasons.

Dare me to say, "they should draft more one-trick ponies?"

On the same token, maybe that's the current play. The team signed a behemoth nose tackle, Cam Thomas, in free agency. Never in his career dating back to college was he accused of being a guy who could play a double-header and jog five miles afterward. Use situation-based players, sub in and out repeatedly, put the strength on the field vs. the situation.

Not to be That Guy and think the game radically changes each year and the Super Bowl champion must be emulated, but Seattle did not use all seven of their front-end players on every down. Lots of those guys rotated in and out based on situations. And this isn't to suggest Donald is incapable of defending the run, he's just a good example of a player who isn't necessarily a fit in the Steelers' base defense, but still could provide a huge amount of value as a situation-dictated player. I don't really see why at least a dive into that foray - given the Steelers acquire the kind of personnel that fits a general discription as "strong pass rusher" or "powerful run defender" - isn't worth the time.

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