Now that Steelers training camp has finally arrived, I would like to complete my two part series about my own personal expectations for the team during the early stages of camp. Last week was the offense, this week we will cover the defense. There have been some big changes in personnel on that side of the ball in just the past couple of days; some hoped for, some not so much.
First things first, I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that this year's version of the Steelers defense has the talent and potential to be as good as ever. I know what some of you are already thinking, how can he even suggest such a thing knowing full well that the Steelers lost three starters from last season's group, four when you take newly retired ILB Vince Williams into account. Hopefully my breakdown of various positions will help reveal how the Steelers masterfully planned ahead for their personnel losses, with each position being manned by more than capable replacements.
For starters, the Steelers possess the deepest and most talented defensive line depth chart in the NFL. All three starters on the defensive line: Cameron Heyward, Tyson Alualu, and Stephon Tuitt, enjoyed Pro Bowl caliber seasons in 2020.
Heyward very well may be the most powerful defensive lineman in the league, as his incredible strength allows him to be dominant for extended stretches of games. He was unblockable during the first half of the Buffalo Bills game last year, so much so the Bills were forced to completely change their blocking assignments in the second half because he was single handedly destroying their offensive game plan. It was the most dominant performance I witnessed by a defensive lineman all season not named Aaron Donald.
Stephon Tuitt enjoyed his healthiest and by far most productive NFL season for the Steelers last year. He is a strong run defender, but is a especially disruptive pass rusher, evidenced by his career high in QB sacks. He shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon, if healthy. Alualu knows his role in the defense, and his own strengths and weaknesses. He sacrifices both his statistics and his body for the good of the team, so his defensive brethren can make splash plays and garner all the attention. His contributions are overlooked sometimes, but true defensive line aficionados recognize his excellence.
There is an impressive mix of young talent and potential on the defensive line depth chart. Chris Wormley, Isaiah Buggs, Henry Mondeaux, and Carlos Davis are holdovers from last season. They seemed destined to battle it out for limited roster spots during this training camp. That's partly why the Steelers decision to trade future draft capital to move into the fifth round to select Isaiahh Loudermilk was so confusing for so many. Now you can add Loudermilk to the camp battle equation, as the Steelers are apparently enamored with the young man who is big and strong in a Heyward kind of way. This should be a real donnybrook, with each battle potentially bringing out the best in each competitor. The Steelers actually have that potential payoff scattered throughout the defensive roster.
Recent acquisition Melvin Ingram brings his well rounded game and experience to the Steelers defensive equation at the edge position. He has been brought in to spell established starters in T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith when they need a breather. Watt is simply the best outside linebacker walking the planet, without question. If he can add a few late game heroics; similar to former Steelers DPOY winner James Harrison, who always seem to come up with game clinching sacks at clutch moments, then he may finally go home with the hardware that has alluded his grasp thus far.
Highsmith has Pro Bowl potential for the Steelers, based on his impressive rookie performance. He appears to have focused his off season efforts on improving his functional strength in order to set a more effective edge against the running game. He already possesses an assortment of pass rushing moves and counters usually reserved for experienced edge rushers. He proved solid in pass coverage as well.
Quincy Roche and Cassius Marsh will battle it out for the fourth spot on the depth chart, with the loser most likely earning a spot on the practice squad. I give the early edge to Roche due to his youth and pass rush specialist potential.
The inside linebacker depth chart took a unexpected hit on Wednesday when longtime stalwart Vince Williams announced his retirement as players were reporting to camp. Williams will be missed, both on and off the field. His contributions were substantial, and his leadership was both unmistakable and immeasurable. Thankfully the Steelers have men like Heyward and Haden around to fill the void.
Robert Spillane and Devin Bush are the projected starters, with Buddy Johnson and Ulysees Gilbert lll as young, unproven depth. Marcus Allen and Miles Killebrew offer versatile depth as LB/S hybrids. It should shock no one if the Steelers bring in an experienced veteran for competition.
Spillane is a classic tweener; lacking the size and strength to disengage from blockers consistently, and a half step slower than ideal in coverage. He makes up for any weaknesses with exceptional instincts and anticipation. In a perfect world Spillane would be the first inside linebacker off the bench, where his intelligence and intangibles would have even greater value. That being said, I wouldn't be shocked in the slightest if he proves me wrong and becomes a solid starter. He has forged a professional career by being a overachiever.
Devin Bush's healthy return from knee injury holds the key for the Steelers defense this season. His speed and controlled aggression takes the Steelers already superior defense to another level, potentially elite. He appears to be making an concerted effort to become more of a vocal leader, but he needs to choose his words and tweets more wisely.
The Steelers secondary lost two starters in Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson, but replaced them from within the roster with players capable of maintaining or exceeding expectations. I expect Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton to be the starters, with the versatile Sutton capable of dropping into the slot when necessary.
James Pierre seemingly came out of nowhere to earn a roster spot as a undrafted rookie. He was so impressive in an extremely small sample size that the Steelers expectations for him have increased exponentially going into this season. I expect Pierre to exceed expectations and establish himself as a reliable starter on the outside for the Steelers at some point this season.
Hopefully former third round selection Justin Layne has fully realized that the Steelers schemes demand that he be able to effectively play both man and zone concepts, and that he spent the off season working on his shortcomings in zone. If so, the cornerback position should round out nicely. There are plenty of talented young unknowns who will be competing during camp and the preseason to be noticed. Who will be this year's James Pierre? Only time will tell.
The Steelers are blessed with a outstanding safety tandem in Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds, who play very well off each other. They follow in the footsteps of Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark. Fitzpatrick is the All Pro play maker, while Edmunds is the reliable security blanket. Hopefully they will be roaming the Steelers secondary for years to come, but this is a big season in Edmunds development. A big prove it season awaits.
The Steelers depth chart at safety is a nice blend of experience and youthful potential. All the potential depth has impressive versatility. Veteran newcomer Arthur Maulet has proven NFL production, both as a safety or in the slot. The aforementioned Allen and Killebrew are potential strong safety candidates as hybrids. Rookie Tre Norwood is so position flexible that Coach Tomlin labeled him a swiss army knife, and Antoine Brooks Jr. was quite possibly drafted last year with Hilton's slot role in mind.
This Steelers training camp promises to be an intense all out war for playing time and roster spots. Grab your peanuts and Cracker Jacks. This should be fun.