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Steelers Stock Report: See whose stock is rising and falling on the defense

Can the Steelers defense be better in 2020 than in 2019?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers traded up in the 2019 draft to acquire a dynamic linebacker in Devin Bush Jr. After losing their starting free safety in week 2, they would strike again, trading a first round pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick. With the changes before and the season started, and some surprising developments over the course of the season, I’m going to compare the state of the Steelers defense to two different points in time.

First, the state of the Steelers entering training camp in 2019, what we thought the Steelers were going to be, and second, what the Steelers defense was at the end of the 2019 season.

The offense was covered in Part 1 of the Steelers 2020 Stock Report.


Defensive Line

Entering training camp, the 2019 Steelers defensive line was the consensus strength of the defense. Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave were a top trio, while the depth behind them wasn’t something Steeler fans had much faith in.

By the end of the season the defensive line wasn’t just respected, the Steelers lineman had proven that even with the respect they were given, they were underrated. Stephon Tuitt was as dominant as any defensive lineman early in the season, and Cameron Heyward played what was likely his best season yet, earning his third Pro-Bowl and second All-Pro designation. Heyward set career records for tackles and QB hits, while putting up the second most sacks and passes defended and third most tackles for a loss of his 9 year career.
Javon Hargrave filled the void created by Stephon Tuitt’s injury, playing significantly more snaps than ever before in his career, and setting career highs in both tackles and tackles for a loss while playing more in run defense than he had in the past.

Heading into the 2020 season, Javon Hargrave is gone, replaced by Chris Wormley in free agency. While Wormley is a solid lineman, he is not the pass rusher Javon Hargrave was and that will be missed. While the Steelers depth is as solid as ever with Wormley, the always reliable Tyson Alualu and the promising play of rookie Isaiah Buggs in limited snaps, the top three is now a top two.

vs. 2019 training camp: Stock even.

vs. 2019 end of season: Stock down.


Edge Defenders

Bud Dupree was a controversial recipient of a 5th year option, many Steeler fans wanted that option revoked by the team, or Bud Dupree traded. Before the season started in 2019 the edge position was viewed by most as T.J. Watt, and two of the worst players by contract on the team, with Anthony Chickillo joining Bud Dupree in the Steeler Nation doghouse. It didn’t help when the Steelers failed to sneak preseason standout Tuzar Skipper through waivers and onto the practice squad. With Dupree and Chickillo on the roster, and Skipper in New York, many Steeler fans were not optimistic.

By the end of 2019 things had changed. Bud Dupree set career records in almost every statistic, with career best production in tackles, tackles for a loss, QB hits, sacks, fumbles recovered and fumbles forced. T.J. Watt had a partner in his pas rush that was dominant against the run and able to put pressure on the quarterback on any play. For his part T.J. Watt took another step forward and was in the voting for defensive player of the year. Watt and Dupree were easily the best Steelers edge rushing duo since LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison in 2010.

As the 2020 season approaches, the Steelers have a pair of young and dynamic edge rushers entering their best years. With Bud Dupree working to set himself up for a big contract and T.J. Watt gunning for national recognition, the Steelers may have the best pair of edge defenders in the NFL in 2020. With Anthony Chickillo gone, they also have the least experience behind their starters that they’ve had in a long time. The Steelers are looking for growth from lead backup Olasunkanmi Adeniyi as well as big steps up from rookie Alex Highsmith and 2019 Isaac Redman Award winner Tuzar Skipper.

vs. 2019 training camp: Stock up.

vs. 2019 end of season: Stock even.


Linebackers

The addition of Devin Bush and Mark Barron to the Steelers inside line backers seemed to many to be doubling up at a position that only needed one player. But one thing was certain, the lack of athleticism at the inside linebacker position had certainly been addressed. With the addition of promising rookie Ulysees Gilbert III who stood out frequently in preseason games and the steady presence of veteran special teams ace Tyler Matakevich, the Steelers depth at inside linebacker was phenomenal.

Devin Bush was as good as expected, and much more. By the end of the 2019 season Bush was playing like one of the better linebackers in the NFL, leading the team in tackles and tying T.J. Watt for second on the team in turnovers with 6. When you look at tackles, tackles for a loss and turnovers, only James Farrior’s incredible 2004 season matches Devin Bush’s rookie production in the last 20 years of Steeler inside linebackers. Mark Barron was a mild disappointment, one of the weaker links on a great defense, while Vince Williams played less than half of defensive snaps for the first time since 2016.

The 2020 Steelers have a young, dynamic linebacker on the rise in Devin Bush, a reliable veteran beside him in Vince Williams and untested depth behind them. With Tyler Matakevich and Mark Baron gone, the Steelers will have to lean on Ulysees Gilbert and Robert Spillane to support their main duo. While the depth is a concern, the play of Devin Bush has the Steelers in a good spot.

vs. 2019 training camp: Stock up.

vs. 2019 end of season: Stock slightly down.


Cornerbacks

To quote the 2019 Steelers stock report: “The secondary will trend downward until proven otherwise.” A year ago Steeler fans didn’t know what to expect from Steven Nelson, Joe Haden was getting older, Mike Hilton was viewed much the same way he is today and Cam Sutton was to that point a disappointment.

By the end of 2019 the opinions of the Steelers cornerbacks had changed. Steeler fans were debating if Nelson and Haden were the best cornerback duo in the entire NFL or just top 5. Mike Hilton is still as divisive as ever with how people view him, while Cam Sutton carved out a role as a very valuable backup and deep zone defender.

The 2020 season starts with the Steelers secondary intact from 2019, and with a year playing together and with their safeties, this group could be even better, as difficult as that would be to pull off. The return of Ben Roethlisberger should force opponents to pass more against the Steelers, so while at the end of last season opponents chose to face the Steelers offense rather than test the Steelers secondary, this group looks to get tested more often in 2020.

vs. 2019 training camp: stock up.

vs. 2019 end of season: stock even.


Safeties

The safety position was trending up in training camp a year ago. Sean Davis was the same player he had been, Terrell Edmunds had a season under his belt and was expected to continue his improvements as a strong safety. The Steelers added Kam Kelly from the AAF to the roster and he locked down the 3rd safety spot. If Terrell Edmunds could keep Sean Davis from having to be as involved in the run game as he had been in 2018, and the new faces at linebacker could help with covering tight ends, the safety position had the possibility to blossom into the best group since Troy Polamalu was on the roster.

Things did not go as planned at the safety position. Sean Davis missed week 1, and the Steelers had serious problems defending the deep ball. In week 2 Davis returned, but was re-injured and lost for the season. The Steelers traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick to fill the void, and the Steelers defense would take off. At the end of 2019 the safety position was one of the best on the team, based mostly off of Minkah Fitzpatrick’s brilliant play.

Heading into 2020, the Steeler safeties are again Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds. The big questions facing the position are the depth behind the starting duo and whether the Steelers will be able to stop teams from just avoiding Minkah Fitzpatrick as they did at the end of 2019. Jordan Dangerfield remains as a special teams ace and reserve box safety, but behind that the Steelers are hoping someone will step up and be a valuable reserve. But the biggest change should be the improvements from Edmunds and Fitzpatrick having 14 games played together and an off-season together in the film rooms and working witht he coaches to fit the scheme to their talents.

vs. 2019 training camp: Stock way up.

vs. 2019 end of season: Stock up.


Coaching and overall

The 2019 Steelers defensive coaching staff had changed quite a bit. Joey Porter was gone, Keith Butler took back over the outside linebacker coaching duties, and Teryl Austin joined the team as Senior defensive assistant/secondary coach. While there were serious questions about how Austin would fit in, those questions were answered resoundingly over the course of the season.

Keith Butler’s pass rush schemes that had the Steelers leading the NFL in sacks by a good margin since he took over as coordinator in 2015 continued to be great, but with Teryl Austin assisting, those rush schemes were supported by high level secondary schemes. Austin had shown that ability when with the Bengals their young secondary had thrived while their talented defensive line struggled to successfully get to quarterbacks. Combining the strengths of these two coordinators and the improved talent on the Steelers defense has returned the Steelers to the top tier of NFL defenses.

The challenge facing this coaching staff in 2020 is to build on that success with the coaching staff intact and the Steelers defense returning almost every impact player from a year ago. With the offense looking to rebound, the Steelers defense needs to evolve from one of the leagues top defenses into a Championship caliber defense.

Overall Defense:

vs. 2019 training camp: Stock WAY up.

vs. 2019 end of season: Stock up.


Special Teams

The Steelers return their kicker, punter and long-snapper from the last few years, and while Chris Boswell disappointed in 2018, he rebounded in 2019 and was again one of the more reliable kickers in the NFL. Jordan Berry also returns, although there is competition for the job. Steelers rookie wide receiver Diontae Johnson took over punt return duties and returned a punt for a touchdown, the first Steelers punt return touchdown since 2015.

While the Steelers lost a lot of special teams players, with Tyler Matakevich, Anthony Chickillo, Johnny Holton and Kam Kelly all no longer on the team, the Steelers need to replace half of their top 8 special teams players by snap. The good news is that several of those spots already have replacements, with Robert Spillane, Ulysees Gilbert III and Derek Watt being proven special teams contributors. There are still a few spots to fill, most notably the Steelers need a gunner to pair with Justin Layne, but overall the special teams should be at least as good as they were in 2019.

vs. 2019 training camp: Stock up.

vs. 2019 end of season: Stock slightly down.


2020 Steelers team stock report

Overall the Steelers look to be a much better team than fans expected to get in 2019, or the team that was on the field at the end of that season. Ben Roethlisberger is back to lead an offense loaded with depth at skill positions and hopefully bolstered by some creative play design. On defense the team returns almost the entire roster of play makers from a defense that became one of the best in the NFL. The Steelers look to be one of the better teams in the NFL in 2020, and that is a step up from any point in the last year.

vs. 2019 training camp: Stock way up.

vs. 2019 end of season: Stock way up.


My 2020 Season Prediction: 13-3, AFC North Champions, and a deep playoff run.

Do you agree? How do you feel about this team compared to what you expected a year ago before Ben Roethlisberger was injured and Minkah Fitzpatrick joined the team? Do you think the defense can repeat it’s incredible season? What is the ceiling for this Steelers team?