The truth is the Pittsburgh Steelers defense wasn't good enough last season, but it wasn't half bad either. Though some will find it hard to believe, the Steelers defense finished the season as a top ten unit. The defense struggled mightily right out of the gate last season with blown coverages and poor communication. Sounds familiar I know.
After the initial struggles, the defense actually showed improvement throughout the year. The team's tackling improved from the previous season and they were no longer among the league leaders in missed tackles. One year after leading the league in sacks, the Steelers finished tied for first with the Kansas City Chiefs with a total of 52 sacks.
The defense had two disturbing shortcomings last season. They couldn't make the big play necessary to get off the field, especially at the end of games. The other troubling trend has plagued the team for a few seasons now. A complete inability to create turnovers. The Steelers have obviously struggled to rectify the problem.
The Steelers lack of turnovers just doesn't add up. Sacks and turnovers usually go hand in hand. Pressuring the QB effectively should lead to errant passes and the occasional interception, but the Steelers defenders consistently seem to be a step behind. Always a day late and a dollar short. The Steelers defense has improved their team speed and athleticism over the past few seasons, though they took a huge hit with the Shazier injury. But they had anemic turnover numbers even before Shazier's injury. So what is the problem, and what is the solution?
It is easy to place blame on the scheme and on Keith Butler, but I think it goes deeper than that. Butler is definitely part of the problem, but he isn't the whole problem. The Steelers defense lacks playmakers, that is certain, but exceptional defense is an attitude. Elite defenses all have similar characteristics. They possess a swagger and exude confidence. They have strong leadership and a sound foundation, often supplied by Pro Bowl caliber linebackers.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have been the NFL version of Linebacker U. Players like Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Levon Kirkland, James Farrior, and James Harrison have been the emotional and spiritual leaders of elite Steelers defenses. That is a quality that is sorely lacking on the Steelers at the moment. TJ Watt has displayed superstar potential on the field, but it remains to be seen if he has the leadership skills to be the alpha in a locker room full of them. That quality is something you have, or you don't. I don't think it can be taught or learned per say. It definitely can't be coached up.
It takes more than being a superstar player, though that definitely doesn't hurt. Take Troy Polamalu for example. He was one of the greatest safeties to ever play the game and should stroll into the Hall of Fame next year, but being the inspirational leader of the defense wasn't in his DNA. He lead by example, but left the vocal and disciplinary responsibilities to Joey Porter or Deebo.
The Steelers defense needs their next emotional leader. The player who gets his teammates fired up to go out and play like a pack of wild dogs. That is where turnovers come from. When defenders are flying around the field and gang tackling the ball carrier. One player stops the ball while another comes in and tries to knock the ball out. The top teams at creating turnovers make a commitment at training camp and practices working on their technique. It is a conscious effort stemming from an aggressive approach to defense.
The Steelers have made it known they are looking for playmakers on defense. That is a good start, but this draft offers a unique opportunity for immediate improvement if the Steelers are willing to pay the price. The Steelers moved up to select Polamalu those many years ago and never looked back. The rest is history. This year the Steelers chance to make history, and fix their turnover and leadership problems, is to do what is necessary to move up and select LSU LB Devin White.
White is universally considered a top five defender in this draft class, but I think he will prove to be the outstanding defender from this draft. White's combination of size, strength, and speed are elite and his intangibles are off the chart. I know some don't like the comparison because he played for our enemy, but he really does remind me of Ray Lewis. His intensity is top shelf and his leadership feels natural somehow watching him on the field. He could be just what the Steelers defense needs to be elite again.
Another reason to try and move up to get the next superstar ILB is to make sure one of our division rivals doesn't get him. I remember the Ray Lewis years all too well. I don't want to go through that again.