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Ranking the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers roster heading into Preseason Week 2: The Defense

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Ranking each player at their position after the first preseason game.

NFL: Preseason-Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

With the first preseason game out of the way, I want to do a power-ranking style look at the roster, reflecting on what I saw in the game and where I would rank the players at each position.

This isn’t a 53-man roster prediction, just where I would rank them right now. I’m not valuing draft pick status at all, just what they’ve shown on the field.

For example, it doesn’t really matter where Justin Layne is ranked right now, he’ll be on the 53-man roster. I’m also not going to cover everyone, just the ones that moved up or down the chart through their performance.

First up, the defense.

Cornerback

Justin Layne: Didn’t look ready at all to be an NFL CB in his first shot at it. But as Mike Prisuta reported in his article on Steelers.com, it was more about learning than being ready for the Steelers young CB. There is a positive note though, as Layne played on a lot of ST units, and looked good as both a gunner and as a guy tasked with blocking the opponent’s gunner. (is there a name for this job?) If he can earn ST snaps he will be able to be on the active roster and develop his skills as the last CB on the depth chart. Drops 1 spot.

Marcelis Branch: Hit hard and drew a penalty that shouldn’t have been called, was always nearby but never in good enough position in coverage. Drops 2 spots.

My current CB rankings:

1. Joe Haden
2. Steven Nelson
3. Mike Hilton
4. Cameron Sutton
5. Artie Burns
6. Justin Layne
7. Brian Allen
8. Jermaine Ponder
9. Marcelis Branch
10. Trevon Mathis


Safety

Kameron Kelly: Looked good in a few plays, but with Devin Bush making most of the plays in front of Kelly he didn’t get tested much, and while that is a good sign for the defense, it does limit our ability to evaluate Kelly. What I did see of him he looks like he might have a really good sense for reading the offense, as he broke on a few plays before the snap. It could make him a good player in spite of his limited athleticism, or it could make him a target for misdirection by the offense. Moves up 1 spot.

Marcus Allen: Did not look good Friday. Was content tackling the catch and missed on a few plays. Was around but not impactful on ST. Was hoping he’d take the #3 safety spot, and that didn’t happen at all this game, instead he drops 2 spots.

Dravon Askew-Henry: Similar to Allen, allowed catches and didn’t stand out in tackling at all. He may get some credit for defending passes that were incomplete, but it didn’t look like his defense was that impactful and it was more on the offense. Drops 2 spots.

P.J. Locke: Looked the best of the non-Kelly safeties that played, but that doesn’t say much. Moves up 2 spots.

My current Safety rankings:

1. Sean Davis
2. Terrell Edmunds
3. Jordan Dangerfield
4. Kam Kelly
5. P.J. Locke
6. Marcus Allen
7. Dravon Askew-Henry


Inside Linebacker

Devin Bush: He’s the No. 1 ILB. He shouldn’t leave the field on defense or play much on ST, he is exactly what the Steelers were missing on this defense last year, speed to the ball, tackling and ability to competently cover TEs. If he is playing ST much at all Week 1, or plays less than 75% of defensive snaps I will be surprised and unhappy. Moves up 2 spots.

Robert Spillane: Solid on ST, showed both his strengths and weaknesses on defense. Really good football player but probably not enough of an athlete to make it in the NFL. He could be another Tyler Matakevich. Moves up 1 spot.

Ulysees Gilbert III: If it wasn’t for Devin Bush dominating the conversation at the same position, Uly would have locked up the Redman award and fans would already be calling for him to start over Mark Barron after Friday’s performance. When you look past the stats and look at the film it gets even better. Multiple times he ended up outside lined up like a corner, and made a pass breakup and intercepted a pass on a 2pt conversion from those spots. He showed he could get off blocks against 3rd stringers and make tackles, although he needs to get better at it. He showed some rush ability even if he isn’t Vince Williams. On ST he showed up frequently on film making key blocks and filling return lanes. If he continues to play like he did week 1 he’ll be a real asset for this team. Moves up 1 spot.

Tegray Scales: While playing in Uly’s shadow Tegray Scales looked very good in coverage and solid in run support. While showing up less than Gilbert in ST he still showed up a decent bit, increasing his value. Drops 1 spot. It was that kind of day for the ILBs, Scales looked better than I expected and he still dropped.

My current ILB rankings:

1. Devin Bush
2. Vince Williams
3. Mark Barron
4. Ulysees Gilbert III
5. Tyler Matakevich
6. Rob Spillane
7. Tegray Scales

Matakevich isn’t going anywhere right now. I’d keep 5 ILBs if the 53 cutdown was today.


Outside Linebacker

Ola Adeniyi: Ola surprised me a bit in coverage, he looked competent, and I didn’t expect that growth from him in his second season. He was solid in run support, but not great. He showed again his ability to win 1v1 in pass rush, a skill that has earned him comparisons to late career James Harrison, but he also showed the same vulnerability to QBs taking off and running his way that James showed late in his career. He showed up on ST a decent bit and was impactful. Overall liked the growth from Ola, but I don’t think he’s taken over the No. 3 OLB job yet. Didn’t move on my rankings, but he gained on Chickillo a lot.

JT Jones: He had the pass breakup on the 2-point conversion so he prevented overtime and saved us all from staying up later for no good reason, and I applaud him for that. Outside of that he didn’t show much in coverage, run support or pass rush, he was on ST and showed up a bit. Moves up 1 spot.

Tuzar Skipper: Got to the QB a few times and was good on ST, but his pass rush was like Bud Dupree, a few hand moves and outside of that mostly pushing. He did quite well with his shoulder dip that didn’t involve bending the edge...it was weird. When his moves didn’t work, he did nothing, guys like Ola and Chickillo contain the QB better, Tuzar looked like he was just throwing himself forward and hoping for the best. Drops 1 spot.

My OLB rankings:

1. T.J. Watt
2. Bud Dupree
3. Anthony Chickillo
4. Ola Adeniyi
5. TJ Jones
6. Tuzar Skipper
7. Sutton Smith


Defensive Line

Lavon Hooks: He got a lot of early snaps, disappeared in traffic, showed strong drive but didn’t get off blocks in 1v1 pass rush, got picked on a lot in run defense. Late in the first half and into the second half he did better holding the line and getting push on pass rush. Drops 3 spots.

Isaiah Buggs: Also got some early snaps and showed some good moves and was quicker on stunts than others, showed he could split the walls and double-team blocks, but when the OL locked him up 1v1 he was done. In the second half he was strong across the board. Moves up 1 spot.

Henry Mondeaux: Showed some good moves, but not much drive. For a good amount of the game he was the only one with any pass rush moves to speak of. Moves up 3 spots

My DL Rankings:

1. Cameron Heyward
2. Stephon Tuitt
3. Javon Hargrave
4. Tyson Alualu
5. Daniel McCullers
6. Isaiah Buggs
7. Henry Mondeaux
8. Greg Gilmore
9. Lavon Hooks
10. Conor Sheahy
11. Tegray Sales
12. Winston Craig

Alualu and McCullers didn’t show up in stats, but only Hargrave looked better than them in this game. I think their spots are pretty secure right now.

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Any disagreements? Think I’m too high or too low on anyone? Be a part of the discussion and let me know in the comment section below!