With Steelers training camp kicking off at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., this weekend, one of the many questions that has to be answered for the 2017 season is whether or not Keith Butler's young defense can improve upon the strides it made near the end of last season.
Veteran safety Mike Mitchell made some pre-camp headlines on Monday by saying: "I think we've made some progress, I think we took some strides last year to become a better defense. But if we're not No. 1, we're not good enough."
If you're a Steelers fan, you have to love the enthusiasm, and really, who could take exception—whether it be a coach, teammate or fan—to a player wanting his unit to be the very best in the NFL?
As Butler prepares for his third season as coordinator, does his defense have the necessary parts to be number one in 2017?
That's kind of hard to say, but there's no question the unit, having been infused with youth and athleticism in recent years, has the talent to continue to improve.
Speaking of that youth and athleticism, Pittsburgh has used its first round pick on defense in each of the past five NFL Drafts—and six of the past seven—and has also invested heavily in the unit with several other high-round picks and even a rather high-profile free-agent addition in Mitchell three years ago.
After it sadly became apparent that the likes of James Farrior, Aaron Smith, Ike Taylor, Casey Hampton and even Troy Polamalu had seen their best days, Dick LeBeau's defense, one that had wreaked havoc on opposing offenses for many years and included several number one rankings and produced two Defensive Player of the Year award-winners (James Harrison in 2008 and Polamalu in 2010), was simply a shell of its former self by the 2012 campaign—this despite another number one ranking.
In ensuing years, number one rankings turned into finishes of 13th and 18th in LeBeau's last two seasons as defensive coordinator—including 27th against the pass in 2014.
But, as I alluded to earlier, the front-office had already set out on a transition (or rebuilding) phase, and that kind of change almost never comes without some serious growing pains.
While the Steelers were rebuilding the defensive line and the linebacker corps, the lack of young draft prospects in the secondary was a bone of contention with many fans—until the 2016 draft, that is, when cornerback Artie Burns and safety Sean Davis were added to the mix in the first and second rounds, respectively.
Burns and Davis were added to a youth movement that included defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt; outside linebackers Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree; and inside linebackers Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams.
The results weren't too overwhelming during the first nine games of the 2016 regular season, as the team started 4-5. Also, the opportunistic unit that recorded 30 takeaways and 48 sacks a year earlier (helping to offset an even further regression to 30th against the pass in 2015) was virtually nowhere to be seen.
Making matters worse was the season-ending pectoral injury suffered by Heyward in the disappointing last-second loss to the Cowboys at Heinz Field on November 13, a game in-which the defense yielded 422 yards—including 295 through the air and 127 on the ground.
How much worse would things get without the defense's unquestioned leader and one of its most important pieces?
Around this same time Burns and Davis were promoted to starting roles in the secondary; and Dupree, the team's first round pick in 2015, made his 2016 debut at outside linebacker, after starting the year on IR, following surgery to repair a sports hernia last summer.
And perhaps not so coincidentally, it was after the Dallas game when the coaching staff finally decided to end the Jones experiment at right outside linebacker, and the 2013 first round pick was replaced by the 38-year old Harrison in the starting lineup.
A two-turnover, eight-sack performance by Butler's charges in a 24-9 victory over the Browns on November 20.
The opportunistic play by the defense continued a few days later on Thanksgiving night and the remainder of the year, as Pittsburgh recorded 13 takeaways and 25 sacks down-the-stretch, contributing heavily to a seven-game winning streak that culminated in an AFC North title.
For the season, the Steelers defense recorded 23 takeaways and 38 sacks (not impressive numbers). But averaged out over a 16-game schedule, those seven-game totals in each category would be 29.7 and 57.1, respectively.
True, the defense didn't have to face top-notch quarterbacks down-the-stretch and through the first two games of the playoffs, where the team's winning-streak ultimately reached nine games (only Eli Manning, Joe Flacco and Alex Smith would qualify as anything approaching competent), but you have to like how much progress the unit had seemingly made by season's end.
So what does this all mean for 2017?
That remains to be seen.
Heyward and Tuitt are two of the best defensive ends in all of football and will be joined on the line by 2016 third round pick Javon Hargrave, who started 13 game at nose tackle in his rookie season. If Hargrave makes the same kind of progress that his veteran line-mates did early-on (and based on his rookie seaosn, there's no reason to believe he won't), it's hard to see this unit not being a handful the entire regular season.
Making things a bit more enticing along the defensive line is perhaps a higher quality of depth, after Tyson Alualu, the Jaguars first round pick in 2010 (10th, overall), inked a deal with Pittsburgh this past spring, effectively replacing Ricardo Mathews.
Perhaps the team's biggest question on defense heading into 2017 is at inside linebacker.
Lawrence Timmons left as a free-agent following a pretty distinguished 10-year career. The aforementioned Williams, a sixth round pick out of Florida State in the 2013 NFL Draft, enters his fifth training camp with the inside track at replacing Timmons and starting alongside Shazier.
There doesn't appear to be much concern about Williams' ability to be play the run and rack up tackles, like he did in Week 4 against the Chiefs last season, when he recorded 16 of them, while filling in for an injured Shazier.
The concern with Williams is in his ability to play pass coverage.
But what may be an even bigger concern at inside linebacker is the overall depth, now that Williams is starting and not the top reserve.
As of now, L.J. Fort, Steven Johnson and Tyler Matakevich (the team's 2016 seventh round pick) sit behind Shazier and Williams at the inside linebacker spots.
In other words, the drop-off could be steep if, for example, Shazier, who has missed 14 games over his first two seasons due to injury, has to sit out even a week or two in 2017.
Speaking of Shazier, injuries aside, he appears to be oh so close to breaking through and becoming one of the defensive stars of the NFL.
If 2017 is the year Shazier can stay healthy for 16 games, he could join Harrison and Polamalu as a DPOY recipient.
What about outside linebacker?
In year's past, before Butler allowed his defensive linemen to utilize a one-gap approach, outside linebacker was the position that generated the pass-rush.
Sadly, with Jones failing to make an impact, LaMarr Woodley's career in Pittsburgh being cut short due to injury and Harrison getting released and then ultimately re-joining the team as a late-30's reserve in 2014, the team hasn't been able to maintain its glorious tradition at that position in recent years.
But in Dupree, who recorded 4.5 sacks in only seven games a year ago, the defense may finally have a young stud who is capable of recording double-digits in that category.
Arthur Moats, a reliable and steady veteran who can play both outside linebacker spots, may also be a candidate to start on the strong side, but make no mistake, it will be a huge disappointment if Dupree and his considerable pass-rushing talents can't crack the starting lineup in 2017.
How about the right side?
Can Harrison, now 39 years old, continue where he left off over the final nine games of 2016? And if he can't, will T.J. Watt, the team's most-recent first round pick out of Wisconsin, be able to make a huge impact right away?
How much time will Watt, who began his college career as a tight end, need to fully polish his craft, and will he be of any real value to the Steelers defense in his rookie season?
And what about that much-maligned secondary, one that didn't seem so maligned as 2016 progressed, and Burns and Davis replaced William Gay and Robert Golden in the starting lineup?
Burns netted three interceptions during his rookie year (something Steelers defensive backs haven't been known for in several seasons), while Davis actually started 14 games as a rookie--including several at the slot position before replacing Golden at safety—and seemed to have a knack for the big play, as evidenced by his pass defensed on a pivotal two-point try, in Pittsburgh's 18-16 victory over the Chiefs in the divisional round on January 15.
Rounding out the starters are the veteran Mitchell at safety and perhaps the underrated and under-appreciated Ross Cockrell, who started all 16 games at cornerback last season and was often matched up against the other team's top receiver.
Then there's the slot, a position that has become so important in today's NFL, it's basically a starting role.
It's easy to say the veteran Gay, who has always been a natural for the position, will resume that role. But the play of Gay, 32, seemed to slip as the 2016 season came to a close, and one has to wonder if he still has the wheels and football instincts as he approaches his 11th NFL campaign.
Other candidates for the slot role include Coty Sensabaugh, a journeyman free-agent the team signed in the offseason; Cameron Sutton, a third round pick out of Tennessee, who drew some praise during OTAs, rookie camp and mini-camp, and, like Burns, possesses the ability to play man-coverage (a direction the Steelers may have to take their defensive backs if they want their defense to help them get over the hump); and, believe it or not, Senquez Golson, a 2015 second round pick out of Ole Miss, who came to the Steelers with high hopes to contribute right out of the gate, before having his first two years as a pro derailed due to season-ending injuries.
Golson might actually be the wild card of the secondary. Does he still have the physical skills he possessed coming out of college? If so, there's no reason why he shouldn't be given the same shot to compete and improve the secondary as everyone else.
It could be a pivotal year for a secondary that, despite the praise its youngsters were drawing at season's end, mostly looked like boys playing with men in the AFC title game, as Tom Brady spent 60 minutes exploiting it in a 36-17 blow-out loss at Gillette Stadium.
It could be a pivotal year for the defense as a whole.
How much better can this young defense, one that improved from 21st in total yards in 2015 to 12th a season ago (and improved from 30th to 16th against the pass) get in 2017?
And injuries being what they are in the NFL, what kind of depth will the likes of L.T. Walton, Dan McCullers and Anthony Chickillo, who all saw their fair share of playing time in 2016, add to the defense in 2017?
If the Steelers young defense can pick up where it left off down-the-stretch in 2016 and continue to get after the quarterback and take the football away, there is no reason why it can't be closer to a strength than it is a weakness.
The big money is clearly all on the offensive side of the football, but that doesn't mean the defense can't help take the Steelers to where they want to go in 2017.