The Pittsburgh Steelers are a team in transition in many different ways, but none more obvious than on the defensive side of the football. With Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Brett Keisel and long-time defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau gone, the team now turns to youth and athleticism to key a defense which was below the standard which has been set in the Steel City since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007.
The change in personnel is something which happens to every NFL team, every season. However, what truly might change in 2015 is the Steelers' defensive philosophy. New defensive coordinator Keith Butler already stated he wanted to have his defensive linemen rushing the passer more, and in an interview with ESPN's Jeremy Fowler said how their formula for playing time is simple: hitters will play, passive players won't.
The Steelers warned the NFL, yet no one listened
The Pittsburgh Steelers can say, "I told you so," to Tom Brady, Bob Kraft and the New England Patriots.
In other words, the team is looking for fast, athletic players who aren't afraid to engage in some contact. Simply put, seek and destroy.
It all starts up front for any defensive unit, and the Steelers are no different. The team has a very young, yet talented, defensive front three in Stephon Tuitt, Steve McLendon and Cameron Heyward. However, don't sleep on the back up nose tackle Daniell McCullers. McCullers is a mountain of a man and is able to plow his way into opposing backfields with relative ease.
"This defense is much improved," McCullers told Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "We have more chances to get push and get pressure on the quarterback."
There is reason for optimism surrounding the defense, and the athleticism and speed which is on the roster is certainly at the crux of such positive thinking. The linebacking corps epitomizes such characteristics with players like Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, Arthur Moats, Bud Dupree and James Harrison.
The talent doesn't stop there as you go into the secondary. The defensive backs are going to be exposed in 2015, and how they respond will speak volumes. Nonetheless, each defensive back on the team is not going to shy away from contact. Mike Mitchell and Shamarko Thomas look to anchor the deep half of the secondary, while William Gay, Cortez Allen and Antwon Blake look to hold down the cornerback positions. Rookie Doran Grant is a known tackler, as is second-round pick Senquez Golson, when he returns from injury.
The Steelers defense is not an extremely experienced group, and will surely make mistakes. However, if they are going to make mistakes, you might as well make them at full speed and with a near reckless abandon. Anyone who follows the Steelers knows the defensive side of the football is where this team can separate themselves from their 2014 version, and their ability to make plays with speed could be the main difference.
When the question was posed who was the most "feared" Steelers defender, most pointed to a soon-to-be 37-year-old James Harrison as the answer, but after the 2015 season the answer may be different. Maybe it will be Shamarko Thomas who strikes fear in opponents coming across the middle of the field, or Cameron Heyward who resumes his "Wreck it" ways.
Any way you look at it, the Steelers need to get back to the fast and physical play which gave them the moniker of "The Steel Curtain" in the 1970s, "Blitzburgh" in the mid-90s and the "Renegade" era of the 2000s. It may just be the difference between a contender, and a pretender next season.