While some big names have left the Steelers defense this offseason, such as Joe Haden, Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers are returning the vast majority of the 2021 defense. In fact of the 25 players that played 50 or more snaps in 2021, only 5 of them are not returning, and only two of those players, Joe Haden and Joe Schobert were playing significant snaps at the end of the season.
But even with only a few personnel losses, the Steelers defensive depth chart has a number of interesting battles that will need to be resolved in training camp.
Who gets the most snaps behind Cameron Heyward on the defensive line?
Tyson Alualu returns to the Steelers while Stephon Tuitt is now officially done with football. That would seem to point to Alualu as the man right behind Cameron Heyward. But Tyson Alualu hasn’t played 50% of snaps in a season for the Steelers. He’s 35 and coming off an injury, it’s probably not the best time to increase his playtime. The Steelers are already showing this philosophy by putting him on the PUP list to start camp.
The Steelers also added veteran Larry Ogunjobi who is coming off the most productive season of his career, but is also coming back from a serious foot injury that he suffered in the postseason. It’s an injury which caused him to fail a physical early in free agency.
Chris Wormley was second on the defensive line in snaps played in 2021, but while Wormley showed good pass rush, he was hit or miss against the run, often being driven out of position to open big holes for opposing backs.
Lastly, Isaiahh Loudermilk showed a lot of promise in his rookie season but didn’t even play 25% of the snaps over the course of the season. He showed up to OTAs with a lot of muscle gain and look poised to push for more time in his second season.
Tyson Alualu will return to his job as the primary nose tackle for the Steelers, while Larry Ogunjobi will most likely be the starter opposite Cameron Heyward. But while I expect Ogunjobi to be the starter come Week 1, don’t be surprised if Isaiahh Loudermilk ends up with more snaps over the course of the season. He was the Steelers second-best run defending lineman last year, and he’s bigger and stronger now.
My major prediction is that the Steelers will look to rotate lineman even more this season, to keep their starters fresh and limit injury risk. The Steelers depth is better than it has been the last few years and their starters are older and two are returning from injury.
Who will be the Steelers buck linebacker?
The Steelers added Myles Jack to their roster to replace Joe Schobert, who was signed to replace Vince Williams. Vince Williams is a classic buck linebacker, much better equipped to take on blockers than drop into coverage or race a back to the sideline. The Steelers have gone away from that traditional look with Schobert being more of a hybrid and now with Myles Jack, who is more of a mack linebacker. Devin Bush has been that mack-style linebacker for the Steelers since he was drafted, so is Jack replacing Bush, or will one of them have to learn to be the buck linebacker?
While fans are used to having a mack and buck linebacker, that has been because Vince Williams won a starting job more than the design of the defense. The Steelers wanted to get away from those designations back when James Farrior was playing, and they aren’t trying to fit them now. The Steelers will play Bush and Jack together and the play will determine which role each linebacker is tasked with.
This does put more emphasis on the defensive line to lead the way in run defense, but the Steelers have a defensive line group capable of doing the job.
How will the Steelers sort out the cornerback roles?
The Steelers don’t have a clear #1 cornerback, and they don’t have a clear nickel corner either. They have three cornerbacks who have been starters in free agent Levi Wallace, who started every game for the Bills and was second on their defense in snaps played, Cameron Sutton who started 16 games for the Steelers and was second in defensive snaps played, and Ahkello Witherspoon, who only started three games, ranked 8th in snaps played among defensive backs, yet led the team in interceptions and passes defended.
The Steelers also return their depth from 2021, with James Pierre, Arthur Maulet and Tre Norwood. All three played over 30% of defensive snaps in 2021.
The Steelers don’t have a true #1 cornerback, but they will plug Levi Wallace into Joe Haden’s role on the defense, which is where he was at his best in Buffalo. Expect Cameron Sutton to start opposite him where he was in 2021, and where he played well against all but the best receivers. Ahkello Witherspoon will likely be the third cornerback, coming in but playing outside in nickel while Cameron Sutton slides into the slot. Witherspoon should also be a matchup-based player who will help take on top receivers. Also look for different nickel and dime looks to match opposing personnel. The Steelers have a lot of options but no obviously right ones.
Who will start alongside Minkah Fitzpatrick at safety?
Terrell Edmunds led the Steelers defense in snaps played in 2021, but wasn’t a priority re-signing for the Steelers at all. He ended up signing a “Four-Year Player Qualifying Contract” which is a special designation that teams can use on a player who was on the roster for four seasons. This means Edmunds contract has a reduced cap hit. His cap ranks 8th among Steeler defensive backs, below even Arthur Maulet, Miles Killebrew, Marcus Allen and Justin Layne despite earning more in pay than most of them. However, his competition, Damontae Kazee, ranks just below Edmunds at the 9th highest cap hit among Steeler defensive backs.
It’s kind of strange that it looks like the major competition to start at safety will be from two guys with a lower cap hit than Marcus Allen and Miles Killebrew, who are primarily special teams players. Especially with all four having signed contracts this offseason.
No matter the financial situation, I can’t imagine Miles Killebrew ranking higher than either Edmunds or Kazee on the depth chart. I expect to see Terrell Edmunds continue to be the starting strong safety and the Steelers use Demontae Kazee in deep zone roles a good amount as well. Despite the incredibly low investment in two of the three safeties, I think the safety room is the best it has been since Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark were playing.
Are there too many positions up for grab?
Mike Tomlin, like most football coaches, loves competition. But while competition is good, the best players on the team will never be mentioned in articles like this. Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, players like that aren’t in competitions. Even non-stars can be in the “lock” category. Ike Taylor, Stephon Tuitt, Mike Hilton, Ryan Clark, Brett Keisel. Those guys weren’t competing for a job for most of their careers.
The Steelers defense doesn’t have many locked in positions behind their star players. Part of that is because the Steelers have added players to compete, but part of that is they don’t have many players that have locked down their positions. The Steelers defense has a lot more depth at key positions, but the question is will any of them lock down their positions and become the reliable quality starters this defense needs.