Earlier in the week, I attempted to identify the Steelers biggest roster holes still remaining on offense after the draft, focusing mainly on what I considered to be the most glaring need. The article generated plenty of interest and facilitated some informative discussion points. Many knowledgeable BTSC community members contributed to the discussion, listing their own thoughtful opinions and concerns.
Although I didn't include a poll; in hindsight I should have. The consensus among the community felt the Steelers still needed upgrades at backup running back, third string tight end, and offensive line depth. Swing tackle was the most glaring hole remaining for the Steelers offense, in my opinion.
In this article we are going to focus on the Steelers remaining roster needs on defense, and I will try to identify what I consider to be the biggest glaring hole.
The Steelers appeared to possess a potentially dominant defense heading into the 2021 NFL season. Then injuries, an unexpected retirement, and tragedy decimated the talented roster. Suddenly backup role players were thrust into starting roles, and the Steelers defense struggled, specifically the run defense.
The Steelers have addressed some of their depth issues through free agency and the draft, plus the expected triumphant return to form of some of the injured or missing in action, but questions still remain. Such is life in the modern salary cap era.
The Steelers biggest deficiency on defense in 2021 was the run defense, without question. Although the Steelers ranked ninth in pass defense, they finished dead last in the NFL against the run. I never imagined for a second that would happen in my lifetime. The Steelers pass defense ranking was actually a little misleading, because why throw the ball when teams could easily shove the ball right down the Steelers’ throats.
But enough about last season's nightmare of a run defense. Hopefully this season will be a complete 180 for the guys in black and gold. The healthy return of Tyson Alualu will do wonders for the run defense. I have considered Alualu the most underrated Steelers defender for the past couple of years. His value tying up blockers and holding the point of attack should never be taken for granted by any Steelers fan.
Stephon Tuitt's anticipated return is anything but a certainty, so the Steelers drafted talented rookie DeMarvin Leal in the third round as insurance. Adding Leal to a defensive front featuring All-Pro Cameron Heyward, Alualu, Chris Wormley, Montravius Adams, Isaiahh Loudermilk, and Carlos and Khalil Davis should provide the Steelers plenty of quality defensive line depth. Tuitt is obviously the great unknown. If he doesn't return, then the Steelers may be wise to sign another experienced run stuffer.
The Steelers secondary has actually improved this offseason. Longtime starting corner Joe Haden remains a free agent and appears unlikely to return. Haden's game began to show the effects of Father Time last season in the form of injuries and decreased foot speed. Newly acquired free agent corner Levi Wallace is an upgrade, in my opinion. Wallace is a solid all-around corner. He has coverage versatility, and he is physical in the running game.
Ahkello Witherspoon is going into the 2022 season as the other starting cornerback. In the past, he has struggled when projected as a starting corner. Hopefully that tendency remains in the past, because the Steelers are counting on him playing like the exceptional coverage corner the Steelers saw in the second half of last season. What he possesses in speed and agility, he lacks in physicality. Basically, don't ask him to tackle.
Another area where the Steelers improved in the defensive backfield is at safety. Not only were the Steelers able to maintain their defensive chemistry by re-signing Terrell Edmunds on an incredibly team friendly contract, but they also were able to obtain veteran free agent free safety Damontae Kazee on another team friendly deal. Kazee is a ball hawking, deep coverage free safety with starting experience, but he also has spent time working in the slot. He is a huge addition as the third safety, and offers the Steelers plenty of flexibility. The rest of the Steelers defensive backfield depth from 2021 returns intact.
The Steelers have the best edge defender in the NFL in 2021 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award winner T.J. Watt, plus promising Alex Highsmith trying to put it all together heading into his third season. The Steelers have another couple of talented youngsters with potential in Derrek Tuszka and Genard Avery, but they may deem it prudent to try and add a more accomplished veteran prior to the start of camp.
This brings us to what I consider to be the biggest glaring hole for the Steelers on defense: Buck linebacker.
The retirement mentioned earlier in this article was none other than Vince Williams. Heading into training camp, the Steelers thought they were going to have Vince's physical presence patrolling the middle of the field. His shocking departure left the Steelers scrabbling for a run stuffer in the middle of the defense. They traded for veteran Joe Schobert, but sadly he is far more cerebral than physical. It was a mitigated disaster.
Without Alualu and Tuitt around to keep them clean, the Steelers inside linebackers were overwhelmed with regularity. It definitely didn't help matters when Devin Bush was unable to return to his rookie form. What was most disturbing was the fact his aggressiveness and intensity never returned even as his mobility did. The disappointing performance resulted in the Steelers declining his fifth year option. The 2022 season is a make or break year for Devin Bush.
Fully realizing their need for an upgrade at interior linebacker, the Steelers quickly picked up former Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack when he was surprisingly released in the early stages of free agency. I initially assumed Jack was brought in to motivate, or even replace, Bush as the Mack linebacker in the Steelers base defense. I made this assumption because Jack and Bush are of similar stature and ability. However, early reports suggest Jack will get first shot at the currently unfilled Buck linebacker position.
I have never considered Jack physical enough to be an ideal candidate at Buck linebacker, and I still don't. Jack could be effective if the Steelers defensive line remains healthy and efficient enough to keep both Jack and Bush clean and flowing to the football. However, I fear Jack will struggle if he has to take on blockers with any frequency, similar to Schobert and Bush last season.
Buddy Johnson is the only true Buck linebacker currently on the roster. Nobody knows what Johnson is truly capable of because he was either inactive or injured for the majority of his rookie season. I was hoping the Steelers would try to address the position in the draft, but they had other plans. Hopefully the Steelers will continue to scan the market for a more physical and experienced veteran. If not, we can only pray the defensive line remains relatively healthy and intact enough to keep the interior linebackers clean.
What do you feel is the Steelers biggest defensive need remaining? Please vote in the attached poll, and explain your thought process in the comment thread below.
Stay tuned for additional position breakdowns and evaluations from the BTSC staff, your one stop shop for all things Pittsburgh Steelers.
What do you feel is the Steelers biggest remaining need on defense?
A = Veteran edge defender
B = Run stuffing defensive lineman
C = Buck linebacker
D = Cornerback depth
F = Other