clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Is there a silver lining to the Steelers’ free agency losses on defense?

The Steelers numerous free agency losses should result in a much needed shift in defensive philosophy.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp handout photo

If it ain't broke then why fix it? The Pittsburgh Steelers have possessed the most consistently dominant pass rush in the NFL over the past four seasons. They spent money in free agency to strengthen their secondary during this time, and utilized an aggressive mentality to turn draft capital into solutions at a couple of key defensive positions in the middle of the field.

The Steelers defense steadily improved each season as guys like Bud Dupree and Stephon Tuitt finally enjoyed breakout seasons with the benefit of experience and good health allowing them to stay on the field and productive. The Steelers defensive core remained relatively intact and had the rare opportunity to grow together as a unit.

Longevity as a unit in any defensive scheme creates familiarity, which can be a great thing for the defensive personnel, but inevitably creates issues also. Given enough time to diagnosis any defensive scheme, no matter how talented and efficient the players, NFL offensive coordinators will recognize tendencies and proactively create mismatches through personnel packages and offensive tempo. The NFL is a copycat league, so once an opponent enjoys success on the field doing just that, you are guaranteed to see a steady diet of similar play calls moving forward.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler and his coaches have worked hard to stay creative and ahead of the curve so to speak, and they have been fairly successful in doing just that. The main limitation the Steelers had impacting their creativity was a couple of mainstays who were very effective at their jobs but were often exploited due to size and athletic limitations. The more talented offensive opponents were able to isolate and attack their weaknesses, creating mismatches that the Steelers have struggled to properly adjust to in a timely fashion.

The two players I am referring to; Mike Hilton and Vince Williams, are no longer with the Steelers. Their impressive contributions will definitely be missed, both on and off the field. Hilton; who I still believe was extremely scheme specific and may struggle with far less defensive talent surrounding him, was the plucky undersized overachiever who excelled as a tough as nails slot linebacker. Vince Williams was the old school two down linebacker who set the tone and intensity of the whole defense.

Both men were targeted on occasion for their shortcomings. Hilton due to his small stature, as teams would attempt to isolate him against larger receivers. If you don't remember, just watch the games last season against Philadelphia and Washington. Williams struggled in coverage regularly, especially when matched against faster receivers due to his lack of footspeed.

You have to give the Steelers defense credit. They learned how to help cover for their teammates weaknesses and limit the mismatches created. This ability served them well for the most part, but proved much harder to do against more talented opposition, and impossible when vital defensive contributors were injured and out of the lineup.

Now the Steelers are tasked with replacing three defensive starters prior to the start of the 2021 NFL season. With limited salary cap space, the Steelers are going to be focusing on the upcoming NFL Draft to fill multiple vacancies. There are a number of possibilities already on the roster, and the Steelers are always looking for free agency bargains, but the draft will continue to be the Steelers main avenue of replenishing talent.

The Steelers are focusing on rebuilding a anemic offensive line and nonexistent running game this off season, but the Steelers will definitely address their holes on defense. That's where things get intriguing. The Steelers would be wise to focus on three down defenders with positional flexibility and without glaring weaknesses that could help the Steelers defense take their game to another level.

Tulsa LB Zaven Collins has the size and athleticism to never come off the field on defense, and many pundits believe he can both man the middle or play the edge at the highest level, depending on his future team's need and preference. I believe that he would make an excellent Buck linebacker for the Steelers, with the versatility to play the edge on occasion to improve defensive creativity.

There are multiple edge prospects blessed with superior size and athleticism, but few Buck linebacker prospects in this draft class. Michigan DE Kwity Paye has incredible athleticism and size, more than enough to play edge for the Steelers. Think Lamar Woodley or Bud Dupree, but even more of a freak athletically. He may fall into range for the Steelers due to his limited collegiate production and the fact he is extremely raw. His possible selection would hinge on the Steelers future plans for last year's standout rookie Alex Highsmith.

As I have mentioned multiple times in articles throughout last season, Highsmith went from college walk-on to NFL rookie standout through hard work and determination. He played a year at inside linebacker in college before settling on the edge. He has the athleticism, versatility, and intelligence to be an excellent Buck linebacker in my opinion. Former Steelers great James Farrior followed a similar career path after being selected by the New York Jets and playing out of position on the outside before signing with the Steelers and turning into a Steelers legend at inside linebacker.

The Steelers should have multiple options to strengthen and improve the creativity of their base defense this season through the draft and with personnel already on their roster. Just how the Steelers go about that task will more than likely depend on which prospects are available when the Steelers are on the clock. The Steelers immediate future depends on the results.

Change isn't necessarily a bad thing, even for a franchise that prides itself on stability. A positive mindset is often half the battle to start any endeavor. The Steelers have a real opportunity to make some positive defensive adjustments this season, out of necessity. Hence the silver lining possibility.