After a great discussion yesterday about the improvement thus far for the Steelers offense for 2022, let’s keep the discussion going again and transitioning to the defense. Before going much farther, the opening of yesterday’s article needs to be stated again.
Before I go any farther, I want to give a disclaimer that I am ultimately not answering this question. Instead, the goal here is to actually seek the depth at which this simple question lies. Rather than offer an answer to one question, it ultimately leads to more questions being asked.
In case you missed the discussion about the offense, it can be seen here:
Much like the offense, let’s look at the same key statistical categories where the Steelers finished the 2021 season on defense and how they ranked against the rest of the NFL:
Total yards: 24th (361.1 yards/game)
Total points: 20th (23.4 points/game)
Rushing yards: 32nd (146.1 yards/game)
Passing yards: 9th (215.1 yards/game)
When looking at the numbers combined with the ranks from offense, the best category of them all was the Steelers passing defense. But were these numbers what they were because of the passing yards surrendered, or the team simply ran the ball more as the Steelers gave up more yards on the ground than any other team in the NFL?
So what have the Steelers done to get better on defense for 2022? The Steelers have made a number of moves on their defense so far in free agency. Between adding two players, they have also retained others from the 2021 roster.
As I said before, I fall into the category of “cautiously optimistic” when it comes to the Steelers free agent moves this offseason. While it is possible players can come in and find greater success in Pittsburgh than they have at previous stops, there is just as much of a chance that they struggle to live up to what they have accomplished so far in the NFL. While I identify the potential of what could be, there’s always the question of if it will turn into the other end of the spectrum.
Much luck with offense, I’m going to break the defense into different categories. This time, there will be three different categories on which the Steelers could improve. While I wanted to use the categories of run defense, pass rush, and pass defense, I felt that I would be discussing the same players in multiple categories. Instead, I’m opting for looking at the three different levels of the defense in this way: Line of scrimmage, second level, and defensive backfield.
Line of Scrimmage
What I had in mind for this category was for it to include the defensive lineman and, for the most part, the edge rushers. While T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, along with their supporting cast, will fit mostly into this category they could also be mentioned in the second level category as they are utilized in that manner at times. In looking at the outside linebackers, the two main pieces are still on the roster. There is hope for improvement in Alex Highsmith as he heads into the third year of his career. T.J. Watt is the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and not much more needs said. The Steelers could use another player to use rotationally as the next option at this time is Derek Tuszka.
What will ultimately determine any improvement on the Steelers defensive front, whether it be run stopping or pass rushing, is the return of Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu. First, the question comes to if they are returning. Alualu stated he is back but will be the Steelers oldest player on the defense. As for Stephon Tuitt, there is hope for his return for 2022, but there was also hope that he would be available at some point in 2021. I think many Steelers fans are “cautiously optimistic” when it comes to Tuitt’s return.
The other part of the return of these two players is their production. How will Alualu produce after missing almost all of 2021 due to an ankle injury and taking the field at 35 years old? Will Stephon Tuitt be the same player he was the last time he suited up for the Steelers? As much as their availability is a concern, their playing ability is even more in question.
Chances are the Steelers are not done adding to these position groups. Even with the return of Montravius Adams, who signed a two-year deal this week, the Steelers could look to the draft to be able to infuse more youth into the defensive line. Also, the Steelers may still be looking for a depth piece at outside linebacker.
For this group, it basically consists of the inside linebackers. While the outside linebackers can sometimes be dropped off the line of scrimmage, they have already been discussed so the emphasis here will lie on what the Steelers are going to do with their middle linebackers. Exchanging Myles Jack for Joe Schobert saves the Steelers a lot in salary cap space, and it brings in even more athleticism to the position group. But have the Steelers really addressed the need at the position?
Many Steelers fans felt that the team had two linebackers filling similar roles last season in Bush and Schobert, but lacked a linebacker in truly stopping the run. Rather than dive too much into the classifications of linebackers, we’ll just leave it at this and it can be picked up in the discussion below. But by adding Myles Jack, have the Steelers fixed the issue or brought it more to light? Are Myles Jack and Devin Bush expected to play together or is it one in place of the other?
While it appears the Steelers may have improved on the coverage side of their inside linebackers, are they more prepared to stop the run? This will be a huge question going forward with this position group throughout the offseason and likely throughout 2022.
Out of all the positions covered so far on offense and defense, this last one is the most likely to be deserving of a grade of “incomplete.” It’s really difficult to judge what the Steelers secondary is going to do until they actually have a player to play strong safety. As the market is still unclear with a number of quality players being unsigned at the position, exactly what the Steelers do here may determine what direction this entire group goes. Is it keeping the status quo with Terrell Edmunds, looking for an upgrade at the position, or settling for something less?
While it is easy to focus on strong safety, cornerback should not be out of the discussion either. Minkah Fitzpatrick has the free safety spot held down once again, so it’s really the players around him which will determine their success. With a Ahkello Witherspoon agreeing to a deal with the Steelers but simply not being in town yet to sign on the dotted line, it’s assumed he will be in the mix once again. Joe Haden has not been brought back at this time, and the Steelers added Levi Wallace from the Buffalo Bills. Is Wallace an upgrade over Haden? This question, along with the uncertainty and strong safety, ultimately determines if the Steelers will be taking a step forward, maintain what they did in 2021, or take a step backwards going into this season.
Now that a deeper dive has been taken into the question of the Steelers defense and any potential improvement from 2021, has it made a possible answer any easier? Is there really any way to know before this team takes the field in training camp and through the 2022 NFL preseason? Are you confident that the Steelers defense will be improved in certain areas for 2022, or do you think there are still too many factors? Is there one of these three categories you feel is more improved or needs to still be upgraded? Make sure to leave your thoughts in the comments below.