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The Pittsburgh Steelers are keeping their fingers crossed concerning this year’s defense

While the Steelers’ offense appears poised to be a league leader, the defense remains a work-in-progress.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Player arrivals at this year’s training camp signal the beginning of the Steelers’ continuing pursuit of a seventh Lombardi Trophy.

The Steelers’ defense played short-handed last season, even before the devastating injury to Ryan Shazier.

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ league leadership in sacks last season was impressive, but it’s even more remarkable when you consider they accomplished it without an NFL-caliber starting safety on the roster.

Mike Mitchell tried his best, and Steelers Nation will always value his efforts, but the hard truth is that Mitchell was the worst starting safety in the league last season. His days as a starting safety have now come to an end and, at present, he’s still searching for a team willing to give him one more chance to continue his career. His trash-talking last season became a distraction, especially because he failed consistently to back it up. That, coupled with his below-the-line performance on the field, might prove to be the final nail in the proverbial coffin of his career.

To be fair, Sean Davis was, at times, borderline as an NFL-caliber starting safety. The majority of the time, the young man resembled what he actually was, a second-year player thrust into the position before he was ready and out of necessity.

Sean Davis has every attribute necessary to be a successful starting safety in the NFL. He has been blessed with tremendous length, speed, and agility. His major shortcomings thus far in his pro career have been play recognition, assignment integrity, and execution.

So what do the Steelers need to do to assist Davis in taking the next step to reach his full potential? I believe they already addressed this situation when they hired Tom Bradley to coach the secondary and signed Morgan Burnett as a free agent.

The Steelers immediately went from having no NFL-quality safeties on the roster to having what I believe will prove to be a strong starting tandem this season.

Morgan Burnett is a proven starter in the league who possesses superior tackling skills and communication ability. His strengths should immediately lessen the impact of Davis’ weaknesses and his example should be a positive influence on Davis’ journey to become a reliable, starting safety.

The Steelers doubled down on fixing their safety issues by drafting two quality prospects this year. They took Terrell Edmunds out of Virginia Tech in the first round and then picked Marcus Allen from Penn State in the fifth. Both young men are reportedly excellent tacklers with strong communication skills. I’m starting to notice a trend here, how about you?

When you factor in Tom Bradley’s renowned teaching abilities along with this new influx of talent, you begin to see why I feel this season’s defense can take a huge step forward and do their part to lead the team to another Super Bowl title.

Take last season’s playoff loss to Jacksonville as a perfect example. The NFL Network showed a replay of the game we would all rather forget the other night and I found myself watching the first quarter against my will due to my thirst for anything Steelers at this point of the offseason.

I was actually shocked by what I noticed this time, since I wasn’t watching in the heat of the moment. The defense was manhandled right from the start by a much more physical team, and their subpar performance revealed a shocking lack of faith in each other plus a lack of overall leadership on the unit.

The players knew they had a huge hole at inside linebacker, what with Sean Spence starting despite being undersized and still a step slow coming to the team fresh off of the couch only a few weeks prior. Spence gave it his all but, understandably, wasn’t anywhere close to good enough. Couple that with Mitchell’s yearlong struggles and the defense knew they were behind the eight ball.

This realization caused some players, especially rookie T.J. Watt, to lose discipline and attempt to do too much to pick up the slack. This tendency had a cascading effect, leading to blown assignments and mass confusion at every level of the defense.

It’s never good when players throw up their hands after allowing a big play and openly question a teammate “Where were you?” What at first glance appears to be a communication issue might actually be the result of a player losing defensive integrity by trying to make a game-changing play. Against the Jaguars, this happened on defense early and often.

Just when the team was holding out hope for a hero, no one stepped up as the leader to rally the troops and set everyone’s mind at ease. It became evident that true leader was nowhere to be found, especially in the secondary. Mitchell was definitely vocal and loud, but he was far from a leader.

I can’t recall the secondary players huddling by themselves on the sidelines when they came off the field as much last season. Maybe they did and I just didn’t notice, but they didn’t appear to be the close-knit unit we’ve grown accustomed to. I know we were all spoiled during the past decade by standouts like Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, and Ryan Clark.

Hopefully Morgan Burnett can assume the leadership mantle for the back end of the defense this season. A calming presence and mentor for a talented, young group of players. I believe Joe Haden tried his best last season to fill this role, but he was still learning what it’s like to play for a winner for the very first time in his career.

Training camp will give us our first exciting glimpse of the Steelers’ new, reloaded secondary.

It will also provide all the new safeties an opportunity to get to know one another. They’ll definitely need name tags in the DB meetings.