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Dark days ahead for Steelers Defense

The draft honeymoon is officially over. We've listened, watched, read -- and reread -- every draft prognosticator's opinion of Pittsburgh's new crop of players. And yes, we're as excited as they are, all be it with a half glass full approach. But despite lofty expectations for Bud Dupree, sophomore improvements for Stephon Tuitt, Martavius Bryant, Ryan Shazier, Daniel McCullers, and Dri Archer, as well as a judgment day season for 2013 first round pick Jarvis Jones, we may have to temper our expectations for the 2015 Pittsburgh defense, as I suspect a rough patch ahead.

Keith Butler is a hell of defensive coach. That's unquestionable. He's responsible for ushering in a new generation of great Steeler defenses from 2003 to 2012. His tutelage also produced a splendid era of Steeler linebackers, including the unlikely star-turn of James Harrison, going from unwanted prospect, to defensive player of the year. But now he inherits the entire pipeline. The big question is, will he stray from the status quo 3-4 set and incorporate an entirely new scheme, or will it be much of same Dick Lebeau sets? I'm gonna take a leap of faith and say it's the prior. Football is the ultimate ego profession, and if Butler wants to run his own team someday (don't fool yourself, he does), he's gonna have to earn it with his own identity.

With that being said, that could prove detrimental to the success of the 2015 and 2016 defense. Why do I say this? Well, I'm sure we all remember Todd Haley's first two seasons as OC. Gone were the Bruce Arians days of chuck it and far and deep. Haley wanted a short, crisp, move the chains offense. And it sucked terribly at the start. There were even talks that Ben wanted Haley gone after that 2012 season. But things got better, and in 2014, Haley's offense set the league on fire. Ben has never looked better as a quarterback, and now, heading into the 2015 season, it could be Haley's last if the offense produces another top 5 outburst.

That brings us to Butler. When Tomlin was hired back in 2007, many though he'd change the current 3-4 scheme to his preferred Tampa 2 that he learned under Dungy, and made successful during his time as DC in Minnesota. Butler also has a 4-3 background, but both relinquishes and adjusted to Lebeau's sets. Those days may be behind us. Here's a description of the Tampa 2:

"...Typically, the [Tampa 2] players don't have the prototypical size of other NFL defenders. Instead, stress is put on speed, smarts and flawless tackling. [...] A quick defensive line is a must, but the middle linebacker position is the straw that stirs the drink."

If our past two drafts are any indication, this is what Tomlin and Butler are edging towards, IMO. And with that, will be some serious growing pains, just like we saw with Haley in 2012, and part of 2013. It might not be until 2017 that a new Tomlin-Butler preferred defensive scheme really takes shape and starts paying dividends like it did for the Steelers O in 2014. It might not be what we want to hear, but it's probably what we're looking forward to for the next two years.

The good thing about 2015 and possibly 2016, is that we have a really, really good offense. I mean, really good. Think about it, it took Ben 18 months of on-field action to work out the kinks of Haley's offense, and put it all together in 2014. The offensive line during Mike Munchak's first season in Pittsburgh was pretty serviceable for most of the season, but looked downright stout in some games. They're going to be much better in year two, as was the Steelers O in 2013.

However, the Steelers did not have the luxury of a good defense when Haley arrived, as most of old guard was declining and started racking up serious injuries. Add in some questionable front office decisions -- letting Keenan Lewis walk in free agency, drafting 4-3 DTs to play in a 3-4 set, not preparing for the future earlier -- as well as a massive regression from Lamar Woodley, helped produce the current crisis we're now experiencing on that side of the ball.

But I see a bright future ahead for our defense. A future that includes, I believe, at least 3 POSSIBLE all pro players (Shazier, Dupree, and Heyward), and potential pro bowl players in Tuitt, Golson, and, dare I say it, Gerrod Holliman. (For the record, I'm not a fan of Holliman. I think he'd be a terrible fit for the Tampa 2, if they go that route, where safeties are heavily relied on to TACKLE. But he's got unique skills where if patience is applied, we could be pleasantly surprised in two, three years.)

So, do I think this diminishes our chances of winning a Super Bowl this year? To a degree, but this is a league where if you have an advantage on one side of the ball, you can ride that to glory (I'm looking at you St Louis 2000, Baltimore 2001, New England 2002, Tampa Bay 2003, Pittsburgh 2006, and the Giants in 2008 and 2012, and Seattle in 2014).

However, outside of St Louis, all of those teams won with dominant defenses. So unless we have the second coming of the greatest show on turf/grass, we may have to wait a year or two to gloat for a seventh time.

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