On the latest episode of the BTSC Pittsburgh Steelers podcast “The Standard is the Standard” (you can hear it in the player below) I asked my co-host Lance Williams how close he thought this defense was to becoming dominant. When I mentioned dominance, I referenced the feeling felt in those early-to-late 2000s when you always had the feeling the defense was going to step up and make a play.
To the contrary, most recently the Steelers’ defense has left fans with the “here we go again” feeling more than the “they got this” feeling. But how close are they to bringing a dominant defense back to Pittsburgh? Shockingly, Lance thought they weren’t as far off as many might believe.
From a personnel standpoint, I wanted to go back and look at those 2000s defenses, look at the personnel they had and compare it to what the Steelers will be putting on the gridiron this season. A lot has changed in the game since then, but this is a great point of reference to the overall potential of the defense heading into the 2019 regular season.
Then: Casey Hampton
Now: Javon Hargrave
Hargrave isn’t nearly the run stuffer Hampton was, but when it comes to rushing the passer Hargrave is far superior. Hampton was known to plug holes and occupy blockers, while Hargrave registered 6.5 sacks in 2018. Two different styles, both great in their own way.
Then: Brett Keisel / Aaron Smith
Now: Cameron Heyward / Stephon Tuitt
On paper, Heyward and Tuitt should be the better unit, but Smith was possibly the most underrated player on those legendary defenses, while Keisel was a grinder who always seemed to make a play when it mattered the most. Heyward is one of the best 3-4 DE in the game today, and Tuitt is brimming with potential. If Tuitt can live up to his contract this duo could be absolutely dominant.
Then: James Harrison / LaMarr Woodley
Now: T.J. Watt / Bud Dupree
Of the positions covered so far, this might be the one skewed the most towards those 2000s defenses. When Woodley and Harrison were on, no one was stopping them. While Watt is showing flashes of dominance, Dupree is hardly the equivalent opposite him and this causes issues.
Then: Larry Foote / James Farrior
Now: Vince Williams / Devin Bush or Mark Barron
Again, a huge nod to the 2000s units, but there is a lot which has yet to be known about the 2019 defense. On paper you look at Foote and Farrior and realize how great they were in their prime, but no one knows what Devin Bush, or Mark Barron, will look like on the inside. Either way, Farrior played at a defensive player of the year candidate in his prime, and gives a big reason why this current group might be lacking at this position.
Then: Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden, Deshea Townsend
Now: Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Mike Hilton
Call me crazy, but I like the 2019 cornerbacks a lot. Granted, a lot of those feelings are riding on the success, or failure, of Nelson, but let’s not pretend those 2000s defenses had the greatest cornerbacks ever seen in black-and-gold.
Then: Ryan Clark / Troy Polamalu
Now: Terrell Edmunds / Sean Davis
Possibly the biggest discrepancy of those dominant defenses and the current group is at the safety position. Polamalu was a generational talent, and he and Clark played together perfectly. While Edmunds’ and Davis’ stories have yet to be completely written, they are a far cry from those aforementioned players.
While this exercise was a fun and nostalgic one, you can clearly see where the deficiencies lie within the current defense. While I like the Steelers’ front three, their OLB, ILB and Safeties leave a lot to be desired.
Before fans start to think twice about considering this current defense as legit, understand the players we are referencing from those previous defenses. Polamalu and Harrison were Defensive Player of the Year players. Those don’t just grow on trees. Could Bush/Barron and Williams be as good as Foote and Farrior? Maybe not, but they could be pretty close. Could Edmunds and Davis put some legitimacy back to the Steelers’ safety position? One would expect them to only get better in Year 2.
All in all, I feel this defense has continued to take steps in the right direction from a personnel standpoint. The question now is whether the team can put everything together and show some improvement on the field.