Change is inevitable.
There is nothing permanent except change.
It doesn’t matter which cliché one would choose, it’s understandable that things are going to change. When it comes to the NFL, every team knows that from one season to the next it will not be the same. Players will be added via free agency and the draft, and others will move on to other teams, lose their jobs, or retire. The idea of a team pushing out the same 22 starters on both sides of the ball from one year to the next is not realistic.
But how much change is enough? And if things are going well, is change a good thing?
Last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense finished the year strong as one of the top units in the NFL over the final nine weeks. The debate over strength of schedule and things of that nature has been addressed multiple times since January, so for now will just leave that out of the discussion. The question which remains is will the Steelers defense improve for 2023?
To see how much the Steelers defense has changed, I looked back at the starting lineup for the first two weeks of the 2022 NFL season. All the Steelers players on the line of scrimmage are still on the roster, but those playing behind them are almost entirely different.
For week one of the 2022 season against the Cincinnati Bengals, there are six players who were credited with the start who are still on the Steelers roster. Starting with what would be considered one of their nickel packages, the four players upfront of Cam Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi, Alex Highsmith, and T.J. Watt are still on the roster and expected to be the starters for 2023. On the very back end, Minkah Fitzpatrick is back after his All-Pro season. But the only other starter from Week 1 who is still on the roster is Tre Norwood. Playing the first snap on defense, Norwood was credited with the start. But when looking at snaps played to see who was on the field the most for sub-packages, Arthur Maulet was on the field 60% of the time to Norwoods 35% of the time. So if looking at Maulet as the more significant contributor, the Steelers are down to only five players on their defense that started off last season who are still on the roster.
Players who started for the Steelers in Week 1 that are no longer with the team are linebackers Devin Bush and Myles Jack, cornerbacks Cam Sutton and Ahkello Witherspoon, and safety Terrell Edmunds.
First of all, not all these players are created equal. Three of these players chose to sign with other teams and at least one of them, Devin Bush, did not have any reported interest from the Steelers. The other two players, along with Arthur Maulet, were all released by the Steelers this past offseason.
The biggest question that arises from the players who started off with significant roles with the Steelers defense in 2022 no longer in Pittsburgh is if the Steelers have improved those positions. Although now is the time of year where we are hopeful the Steelers are at least equal, if not better, across the board than these players who are no longer with the Steelers, it won’t be until August and beyond until that question can be answered more accurately.
For me, it was surprising to see how much the Steelers defense changed since the beginning of last year. Granted some of that change came throughout the season with the return of Damontae Kazee and the emergence of Levi Wallace over Ahkello Witherspoon. But when totaling up the snaps from Week 1, there were 1,100 snaps as the defense was on the field for 100 plays with 11 players. Of those defensive snaps, only 450 of them were by players who are still on the Steelers 2023 roster. It just seems crazy that 650 defensive snaps from the first week of the season last year are not even on the team.
I guess one more cliché would be appropriate to close out this idea of change…
Change for change’s sake doesn’t always equal progress.
The Steelers didn’t change up a lot of the players on their defense from where they started last season just for the sake of doing something different. It appears they were very intentional at improving certain positions while maintaining a competitive level at others. How this change works out is one of the most exciting things to look forward to in the 2023 season. But when looking back, the amount the players who contributed early last season who are no longer on the roster is somewhat surprising.