Last time, we discussed some of season’s most exciting plays in order to cut through the summertime ennui. Today, we’ll dissect Pittsburgh’s notorious peculiarities and assign blame to the appropriate parties whenever applicable.
Joe Haden signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers last August is among my most salient episodic memories. I can recall, with vivid detail, the peculiarities of that day: where I was (work); what I was doing (refreshing Twitter every five seconds); how I felt (cold—my office is always so cold); what I smelled (it was late afternoon, and a coworker had just started brewing a pot of coffee to fuel our post-lunch rally).
On the morning of August 30, 2017, the Cleveland Browns released Joe Haden, but not before appealing to Haden’s sense of loyalty, playing the hometown discount card and asking him to accept a $4 million pay cut. Haden refused, so they cut him. He was now an unrestricted free agent, free to take his services to the highest bidder or whichever team provided the best fit. Around noon, it was revealed that the Steelers—who were one of the league’s most porous secondaries in 2015 and 2016—were not only in the running to acquire Haden, but the frontrunners. When I found out Haden intended to sign with Pittsburgh, I was overjoyed.
This was the move, I thought, that would give the Steelers just enough defensive firepower to defeat the Patriots. Haden, who dealt with a range of injuries in 2015 and 2016, wasn’t that far removed from his last Pro Bowl season and was still only 28, making him a prime candidate for a supreme career revival. I considered the possibility of pairing Haden, an established veteran, with promising youngster Artie Burns, who showed flashes of being a legitimate shutdown cornerback in his rookie season. The Steelers, the NFL’s third-worst secondary in 2016 — I thought — would boast an actually pretty solid cornerback duo!
For a while, I wasn’t wrong. During the first half of the 2017 season, the Steelers were the league’s best pass-stopping outfit, holding opponents to somewhere in the neighborhood of 180 passing yards per game. This unit, which in the two seasons prior was known for “bending but not breaking” (not so much an actual style of play as it was a left-handed compliment — but I digress), was now actively winning games for the Steelers. They even looked capable of hanging with—if not stifling outright—Tom Brady and the Patriots. Then, in Week 10, Haden broke his leg and Pittsburgh’s secondary crumbled as a result, as if Haden himself was the very lynchpin that held the whole outfit together.
Based on the secondary’s success with Haden last season, it’s easy to imagine the Steelers finishing the 2018 season as a top-10 pass defense; provided, of course, that Haden remains healthy and productive.
While I immediately placed a considerable amount of faith in Joe Haden, I had no such expectations for Mike Hilton. I was very wrong! Hilton was good! Hilton registered four sacks last season, attacking the line of scrimmage with singular focus and reckless abandon, which was the result of Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler regularly deploying him as a blitzer. This adds a very unique dynamic to the Steelers’ defense, and it makes Hilton legitimately one of the most exciting defensive players in the entire NFL.
I’m interested to see, not only how the Steelers utilize Hilton this season to accentuate his impact as a pass rusher, but how he develops in coverage.
Heyward was recently ranked no. 48 on the NFL Top-100, which, like, who cares, but also this is way too low — come on guys. Heyward was generally an unstoppable menace last season, accruing 12 sacks in 15 games and being one of the lone bright spots on a front-7 that caved like a straw hut down the stretch last season. I thought he had a fairly bona fide case for Defensive Player of the Year.
Using sacks as some sort of measuring stick for individual defensive competency is kind of missing the point, especially for 3-4 defensive ends, who are usually relied on to clog running lanes and draw double teams, allowing the linebackers to fly around and make plays, but Heyward’s career-best season neatly demonstrated that, when given the opportunity, he can be just as productive as any pass rusher in the NFL. He’s established himself as a legitimate game-wrecker — someone for whom opposing defensive coordinators need to specifically game-plan around.
Ugh! This is probably gonna be it for Le’Veon Bell’s Steelers tenure. I’d hope that by now both sides would have reopened their dialogue and begun discussing the various particulars of a lucrative contract extension, one commensurate with Bell’s topmost status on the league’s running-back totem pole. But as of this writing, neither side appears to have budged much on the respective parameters they established back in the spring. Bell wants a long-term deal that pays him at least $14.5 million annually, while the Steelers are apparently unwilling to come up that high.
So we’re pretty much exactly where we were a year ago. Bell has and probably will continue to release rap songs in which he explicitly outlines his general discontent with his contract situation. Blogs will continue to post hit pieces and flowery narratives (both are fine). Bell will skip training camp and his teammates and coaches will provide semi-scripted “dur he should be in camp” responses. He will stay in tremendous shape and show up in early-September looking like a sculpted, glistening god.
Bell’s forthcoming departure (I’ll pause briefly to say that I hope I’m wrong and that the Steelers do sign Bell and that Bell stays in Pittsburgh forever) means that the preseason could provide a glimpse into the future of the running back position in Pittsburgh. James Conner, who the Steelers selected in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, could be in line to secure the No. 1 role down the line, although rookie Jaylen Samuels is generating a bunch of noise due to his durability, productivity, and Bell-like versatility. Obviously, hitching the cart to a third-round pick whose skill set is strikingly one-dimensional — or a fifth-rounder who some scouts weren’t even sure of how to characterize — is a foolhardy prospect, but there’s some quality depth and intrigue at the position currently.