The Pittsburgh Steelers just finished perhaps the worst first half of a season since the 1960s, and there is a lot of blame to go around. As we prepare for the second half of the season, it’s time to judge each Steelers position group. The offense has already been judged, now it’s time to look at the Steelers defense.
The Steelers defensive line has been the strength of the defense for years, and has been a huge factor in all of their top defenses since the Steel Curtain in the 1970’s. The recent decline of the Steelers run defense has come alongside the losses of Javon Hargrave, Stephon Tuitt and the decline in Tyson Alualu’s performance. Cameron Heyward continues to be great, and Larry Ogunjobi has been very solid beside him. DeMarvin Leal looked good when he was healthy, but mostly the Steelers defensive line has one star, and one solid starter in Heyward and Ogunjobi respectively. The depth has not been very good, and it shows on film when Heyward and Ogunjobi are both off the field.
This unit without Heyward would be awful, as was really bad when he was playing hurt.
Honor Roll: Cameron Heyward, DeMarvin Leal’s potential.
Demerits: Lack of reliable good play beyond the top two guys.
Position Grade: C
The big story at the outside linebacker position is the loss of T.J. Watt. The defense and team overall look very different and see very different results based on his presence on the field.
Since 2017 only the Kansas City Chiefs have a better winning percentage than the Steelers do when T.J. Watt plays at least 50% of the snaps in a game and are 2-12-1 when he doesn’t. A 55.5% drop in win rate based on the availability of one player is unheard of in the NFL, even the best quarterbacks in NFL don’t see that kind of impact on win rate. It’s incredible.
Overshadowed by the loss of T.J. Watt has been Alex Highsmith’s development as a player. On film and in the stats he looks like a player who has taken a big step forward. Unfortunately with Watt out, his natural position on the right side of the line puts him right next to Cameron Heyward, and it has been very easy for teams to just roll coverage to that side to deal with the Steelers two best defenders on the line. We’ll see what Highsmith does when Watt returns and teams cannot put the same level of focus on him.
Similar to the defensive line, the Steelers have a serious lack of playmaking from their depth players. Malik Reed is a solid #3 outside linebacker, but when he’s on the field in place of T.J. Watt there is no comparison.
This position with T.J. Watt is great, without him, it has been bad. That’s how Hall of Fame level talents work.
Honor Roll: Alex Highsmith’s development. T.J. Watt’s 66 snaps.
Demerits: The lack of any pass rush beyond Watt and Highsmith.
Position Grade: D
Myles Jack was the Steelers big off season free agent signing, and so far it has been a very good one. Devin Bush seems to have put the really rough play of his 2021 season behind him, and while he’s still not the player he was in 2019 and early 2020, his improved play has allowed Myles Jack to play to his strengths while Bush handles the tougher coverage assignments. Jack has thrived and is currently on pace to record 153 tackles this season. His 9 tackles a game is higher than any Steeler has recorded since 1987 when tackles started being more reliably recorded. The Steelers single-season record for tackles in James Farrior with 141 in 2003.
Robert Spillane remains a solid #3 linebacker, but the Steelers are using him a lot, playing 3 ILBs a decent amount and playing a lot in dime packages.
Marcus Allen has been a stalwart on special teams and Mark Robinson has played all of five snaps on special teams.
The linebackers aren’t stars, but they are solid and have been racking up tackles, they aren’t the strength of the team, but they aren’t a problem either.
Honor Roll: Myles Jack’s run defense, Devin Bush’s bounce back to respectability.
Demerits: Robert Spillane playing too much, lack of a real star presence.
Position Grade: C
The Steelers cornerback room has only one player that played for the Steelers in 2019. Cameron Sutton has gone from a great dime back to a solid #2 cornerback, and he leads his position group in snaps played, passes defended, interceptions and solo tackles. Alongside Sutton the Steelers had Ahkello Witherspoon, a coverage specialist that had been great for the Steelers late in 2021, and free agent Levi Wallace, a #2 corner that had played very well for the Bills when he was forced to be their #1 corner. Injuries to those two have them trailing Arthur Maulet, a solid nickel corner, in snaps. James Pierre and Josh Jackson have both played significant snaps as outside corners as well.
The Steelers addition of William Jackson III has them looking at a room deep on NFL caliber cornerbacks, but still devoid of a true leader and #1 cornerback. The opposite of the defensive line and outside linebacker positions, the cornerback room has tons of depth, but no top players.
Honor Roll: Next man up work from James Pierre and Josh Jackson, Sutton’s steady presence.
Demerits: Struggles from Witherspoon and Wallace, lack of anyone worthy of the #1 spot.
Position Grade: F
The Steelers signed Damontae Kazee in the offseason to try and asse3mble a three-deep safety position that would give them flexibility for how they used Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds. With Kazee not playing, the Steelers two safeties have been outstanding, keeping big plays limited (when on the field) and delivering very good play for a defense that is struggling.
Tre Norwood isn’t a guy you want starting at safety, at least not yet. In the role of backup to both Edmunds and Fitzpatrick, Norwood has been solid in the same way Robert Spillane is solid when he steps in as a starter at linebacker, he has limitations but usually executes at a high enough level to cover for those limitations.
The safeties are probably the Steelers best position group so far in 2022, and they have the addition of Damontae Kazee to look forward to.
Honor Roll: Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds chemistry, limiting big plays.
Demerits: Edmunds’ lack of splash plays, Norwood’s angle on the Bills’ 98-yard TD pass.
Position grade: B
The Steelers defense is a different animal with or without T.J. Watt. But despite Watt’s absence and the lack of splash plays his backup generates, the Steelers have shown they are willing to try new things. DeMarvin Leal, Cameron Heyward and Isaiahh Loudermilk have all played significant snaps on the edge to help cover for Watt’s loss. The Steelers have tried playing all three inside linebackers to try and help the run defense.
The real dilemma in grading the defensive coaches is how much to put the talent issues on those coaches. The defensive line just isn’t talented beyond Cameron Heyward. Larry Ogunjobi is their clear second-best lineman and I don’t know if he would even warrant snaps on the Steelers 2019 defensive line. It’s hard to blame Karl Dunbar for the lack of investment in the position. Grady Brown is coaching a secondary that has started nine different defensive backs and not one has started all eight games. The cornerback position is beat up and has no high-end players.
The scheme for the defense is uninspiring, but they are also covering for the talent they have. There is real hope that the return of T.J. Watt along with the addition of Damontae Kazee and William Jackson III will allow the defense to not only be more creative but a lot more effective, and maybe even be a top defense in the second half.
I’m certain that the coaching shares in the blame for the Steelers struggles, but it is hard to determine how much. I’d like to give this an incomplete, and hold judgement until we see what they look like in the second half, but I’m not doing that.
Honor Roll: Getting a lot out of lesser players.
Demerits: Inability to cover at all for the loss of T.J. Watt (or even Terrell Edmunds)
Coaching Grade: D
The Steelers are a bottom third defense in points per possession, bottom five in yards per possession and 21st in scoring percentage. On the positive side, despite their struggles on the line the Steelers are in the top ten for yards per rush allowed, and they rank highly in completion percentage and interception percentage, but they also among the worst in touchdown percentage, yards per attempt, and sack rate.
The lack of a pass rush and struggles at the cornerback position have made this one of the worst defenses in the NFL. That said, I have trouble giving them an F when the Steelers offense has the defense facing one of the worst starting positions in the NFL, and have given up less than the NFL average 21.8 points per game in half of their games.
Final Grade: D
Now it’s your turn to tell us what you think. Vote your grade for the Steelers defense and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Grade the Steelers defense through the first half of the season
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