Previously, we looked at the Pittsburgh Steelers offense to see who had the most to prove at each position. Now, let’s look at the defense.
Defensive End: Stephon Tuitt, Ricardo Mathews
When it comes to Tuitt, the Steelers are lucky: despite the fact that he was probably one of the ten most-talented players in the 2014 draft, the fact that injuries pushed him to the second round means the team doesn’t have to decide after this season whether or not to exercise a fifth-year option on his contract. Tuitt is heading into his third season, and is on the verge of becoming a beast. So what does he have to prove? Simple: he has to prove that he can be the bookend opposite Cam Heyward that will return the Steelers to their prior defensive glory. This is, after all, the team that boasted Aaron SMith and Brett Keisel together for several years.
Mathews has something different to prove: that he’s more than just the next mediocre-on-his-best-day transplant from San Diego to Pittsburgh. All Mathews has to do to avoid comparisons to Cam Thomas is simply not get pushed backward four yards or more on most plays. But he needs to show more than that to earn playing time, because the Steelers are perilously thin at defensive line depth. They have Tuitt, McCullers and Heyward, then rookie Javon Hargrave. It says a lot when the fans have more faith in a rookie than anyone else behind the top three. Mathews has the experience, but does he have the talent?
Nose Tackle: Daniel McCullers
Yes, in one breath I said McCullers is a starter, and implied he should be dependable, and in the next I say he has something to prove. I see the irony, too — or maybe it’s hypocrisy. I’m not entirely sure. But, at any rate, “Shade Tree” is stepping into some big shoes this year with a lot of unknowns. While former Steelers nose tackle Steve McLendon, now with the Jets, was never near the nose tackle Casey Hampton once was in Pittsburgh, few people ever would have been. But McLendon did well in his own right, aside from missing a game here and there with injuries. McCullers is basically being promoted by default, and has to show that he has put the mental aspects of the game together to complement his ridiculous strength and size — as in, 6’-7” and 345 pounds. If he can handle the mental, the physical will come naturally.
Outside Linebacker: Bud Dupree, Jarvis Jones
Dupree started off his rookie season well, using his lightning-quick first step to beat defenders early in the season. But, a lack of pro-level conditioning caught up with him, and he slowed down after the midpoint of the year. He arrived at camp 20 pounds lighter with a physique resembling a body builder, though, so his dedication to conditioning is pretty obvious. Less obvious is whether he has been able to add a few new pass-rushing moves to his toolbox to give him more opportunities to get to the quarterback — basically, the specific thing he was drafted to do.
If you don’t know what Jones has to prove, you haven’t been watching the last three years. His story is one of setbacks (a broken wrist early in his second season and new coaches his third season), but also one of ho-hum output. He’s improved dramatically against the run and in coverage, but outside linebackers in Pittsburgh are mostly tasked with rushing quarterbacks, and that’s the one area where he has struggled mightily. This year, he’s playing for his next contract, whether it’s in Pittsburgh or elsewhere.
Inside Linebacker: Lawrence Timmons, Jordan Zumwalt
Timmons has been the most consistent player in Pittsburgh’s defense since 2009, and has been considered in the top five of all 3-4 inside linebackers during that time. But he’s 30 now, and entering his tenth season — which just happens to be the final year of a very expensive contract. The Steelers could save a small amount of money by giving him an extension, but they seem content to let him play it out and see where it goes after the season. A strong showing this year could net him a good amount of money on what would likely be his final contract — wherever that may come from.
Zumwalt has had two season in the system, and has yet to complete either of them. He’s got a ton of speed, and in college he had a knack for finding the ball, but he hasn’t played a meaningful snap of football in almost three years. First, he has to prove he can stay healthy. If he accomplishes that, he then has to prove that he belongs at the professional level. We’ve yet to see more than a small flash in practice.
Cornerback: Artie Burns, Doran Grant
This spot was supposed to go to Senquez Golson, but a second severe injury in two off-seasons has rendered that a mostly moot point. Burns, then, is here purely by default of being a highly drafted rookie who was labeled “raw” coming out of college. There’s absolutely no denying the athleticism, and he’s got some good teachers. Not to mention, he has to face Antonio Brown in practice. The reason he wasn’t originally intended to be on this list is that no one really expected him to be on the field much in 2016. His “prove it” season wasn’t supposed to be until next year. So much for that idea.
Grant’s task is, perhaps, a bit more complex. While he came out of college known for being a very technically sound cornerback, he’s seen the field for one snap in one season at the pro level. He was actually cut right after final roster cuts to make room for running back Jordan Todman, but then was signed in November to the active roster. Despite weak play from the entire secondary, Grant rarely even dressed on game day. But the front office brought him back for 2016. What is holding Grant back, though, is that he’s not the fastest, and despite an excellent SPARQ score before the draft, that athleticism hasn’t translated into anything that makes him stand out from a crowded mess behind William Gay, Ross Cockrell and Golson.
Safety: Robert Golden, Shamarko Thomas
If you add up the ages of the Steelers’ last two starting strong safeties, Troy Polamalu and Will Allen, you’d be well into your golden years. That’s been due, in part, to struggles with finding a suitable replacement. Golden, though, has been slowly working toward that spot, and the team’s decision to not re-sign Allen has put Golden into the driver’s seat. He played very well in his few starts in 2015, so the team has reason to have faith in him. But starting a game here and there is very different from being the full-time guy, especially for a guy who came to the team as an undrafted free agent.
Thomas is pretty much the opposite. He joined the team as a fourth-round pick, although you could call him a third-round pick because that’s what the Steelers gave up in order to move up and take Thomas in the 2013 draft. Since then, he’s been known for two things: hard hits, and ill-timed hits. Sadly, it’s been more of the latter than the former for the man who the front office and fans alike originally saw as the heir-apparent to Polamalu. So far he’s looked pretty good in training camp, but we’ll have to see him in a game before we can decide if he’s grown as a player.