The Pittsburgh Steelers defense might look entirely different this September, with four longstanding Pittsburgh icons, a young, but expensive linebacker and several role players all either set to hit free agency or opt for a change of scenery; particularly retirement. Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, James Harrison and Brett Keisel all may have played their last game in a Pittsburgh Steelers uniform. Jason Worilds might command a salary too pricey for the Steelers to afford, while Arthur Moats, Brice McCain and Antwon Blake (restricted free agent) are all eligible to test the free agency waters.
There are many question marks heading into free agency and the draft. Ben Roethlisberger's looming contract negotiations are sure to become a hot-button issue in the coming weeks, while the logistics of re-signing Worilds will be discussed. The Steelers, again, find themselves in a questionable fiscal situation, with the uncertainty of Worild's and Ben's contract casting a cloud of doubt over the team's 2015 finances. Although the cap number is far better than it's been in past seasons, the Steelers, realistically, won't be able to chase a high-profile free agent target like Justin Houston or Darrelle Revis, even if those are positions of need. Besides, the "big" signing isn't really the Rooney's style anyway.
A strong draft will help aid the defense, and there looks to be a plethora of both cornerbacks and pass rushers, two of the most glaring and obvious positions of need for the Steelers.
But what of the current players already rostered by Pittsburgh?
Cameron Hayward looks to be a star in the making at defensive end, while Lawrence Timmons is a Pro Bowl-caliber player at middle linebacker. Young players like Stephon Tuitt and Daniel McCullers have potential and there's a wealth of inside linebacker depth in addition to Timmons. Mike Mitchell and Cortez Allen, two massive disappointments in the secondary will likely remain with the Steelers, as they both possess multi-year deals worth over $20 million. Ike Taylor has stated Mitchell and Allen were both battling injuries throughout the season, a fact which he feels is responsible for their underwhelming campaigns. Finally, Jarvis Jones is the only outside linebacker the Steelers have under contract, and unless a 37-year old Joey Porter comes out of retirement and convinces 37-year old James Harrison to team up and dominate the edges, Jones looks to have a considerable workload coming his way in the near future.
The bottom line is the incumbent players, for the sake of their new defensive coordinator, are going to have to step up. The problems on the defensive side of the ball won't fix themselves in one year, but the Steelers have the personnel to make strides, especially with a strong draft and a few free agent pickups. Allen and Mitchell, for example, were deemed worthy of a commitment of several million dollars, so it stands to reason the team at least acknowledges their potential. If Mitchell and Allen truly were playing injured, as Taylor suggests, perhaps a healthy off-season could allow each defensive back to return to form and submit a strong 2015 campaign.
Jones, on the other hand, might finally have been granted his opportunity to become worthy of the first round draft choice the Steelers used on him in 2013. Timmons and Heyward both had to wait their turns, so it's possible Jones just needed a few seasons to adjust, although he, too, battled injuries last season.
One thing is for sure: The Pittsburgh defense must perform better than it did in 2014. A historically good offense can't be wasted with a poor showing from the defense. Dick LeBeau was a players coach, with members of the defense afraid to disappoint their fatherly figure. By all accounts, the more up front, abrasive Butler will seek to get more out of his players by being a straight-shooter.
There's certainly going to be a lot of competition once camp opens up, and with a fresh new coordinator, count on a fire being lit underneath some of the incumbent Steelers, desperate to prove their worth, and desperate to rebuild this struggling defense.