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The case for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2014: Part Three

Will the defense be able to hold up their end of the deal?

Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

the biggest challenge to this defense is that the league itself has basically declared war on this side of the ball. The NFL isn't even pretending to be even-handed in its promotion of the game.

This is the context that provides the background to every conversation involving defense in this era of professional football. That Pittsburgh, particularly under Dick LeBeau, has been Ground Zero, the model and standard of modern defensive football, the issue has a resonance that extends beyond the relatively petty challenges facing the 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers in this regard.

The question that we're addressing may be more than just whether the Steelers can field a unit competent enough to get the team to the playoffs and beyond, but in the larger sense, is there an adequate response to the entertainment, safety and legal concerns that together have conspired to cripple defense? Can LeBeau and his crew of defensive sages devise a concept that can neutralize or a least slow down the modern offenses? More important to the reader, does he have the players with the necessary talent and understanding to execute such a scheme this season?

The answer to the main aspect of this question will determine whether we are involved in one of those large cycles of the game where a certain scheme or style of play dominates for a time until an antidote is concocted and equilibrium reestablished, or is the change permanent? The answer to the short-term aspect of things is similar to what was being asked concerning the offensive line last season because the challenges are similar. It's simply a matter of how long it will take a highly talented group of mostly-young players to mature individually and collectively. In spite of being sabotaged by injury and coaching inadequacies, the O line was able to pull itself together within the parameters of one season and their progress promises to continue. There's a minority who may believe that the game has passed LeBeau by. But most (myself included) would contend that leadership is sound at the coaching level and, with a little good fortune on the injury front and support from an offense and special teams that serve to lengthen the field and restrict the options for opposing offenses, the 2014 Steelers defense will be able to hold up their end in a manner similar to that exhibited by the offensive line in 2013; that is, much better later than earlier.

Troy, LT and Brett

For the bulk of his career, Polamalu could lead by example while James Farrior, Joey Porter and Ryan Clark could serve in more verbal roles. Even though he has now been named a team captain, I take him at his word that we shouldn't expect any profound personality changes. But if the young players on this team respond to and model his behavior and character, this could be a powerful development. Behind the friendly, fun loving, humble exterior, Troy Polamalu is a cold-blooded assassin. It's interesting when you think of it how many players on the current defense have skill sets that complement Troy's; particularly in terms of speed, position flexibility and violence. Shazier, Timmons and Thomas, just to name a few.

Troy won't be alone on the leadership front. Lawrence Timmons has been stepping up big, necessary due to the exit of Larry Foote and the absence, until recently, of elder statesman Brett Keisel. Hopefully, this is the year where sufficient stability exists in the defense where Timmons won't have to distort his own game to shore up problems elsewhere in the unit. If so, then recognition that's overdue will help cement his authority with this defense moving forward. It doesn't take a crystal ball to realize we're just a season or two removed from this being LT's defense.

As for Keisel, his time away this off-season has allowed him to see Christmas Future. The gratitude and sense of urgency will most likely be very strong with Da Beard this season. Being one of the Steelers' dwindling group of Lord of the Rings, a close friend of Ben's and a favorite of both fans and teammates, he has the opportunity to exert a lot of influence beyond what he brings to the field, which I still believe is considerable. It's hard to believe that some were grumbling about bringing him back. This is not a charity case by any stretch.

Younger guys also are emerging as leaders, with the most obvious being Cam Heyward. But looking over the horizon, you can see a track that would have guys like Shamarko Thomas and Stephon Tuitt filling these roles in the not too distant future.

Defensive line

The addition of Keisel has a powerful impact on the potential and flexibility of this position group. It enables Cam Thomas to multitask, which also helps McLendon. It allows Tuitt to develop with the aid of a net. It provides the opportunity of extra mentoring for Cam Heyward as both a player and a leader. McCullers has the luxury to learn. Think of Keisel as an iceberg. No matter how impressive the part that you can see, it pales next to what's beneath the surface. There are six players in this position group, five of whom I am comfortable seeing on the field at any point in a game.

Linebackers

somewhere down the line it may be possible that there will be a debate over Vince Williams vs. Sean Spence; Florida State vs. Miami.

That was so much wishful thinking when I wrote it a year ago. While Timmons and Ryan Shazier are the headliners at inside linebacker, some respect must be paid to the undercard because the journey for both of these players has been remarkable. In the case of Spence, I think people are stunned and not quite sure if they can fully embrace one of the great stories of this or any year. Obviously, it would have been better if Spence returned as a starter, but let's not lose sight of the fact that the big news is that he returned at all. It's understandable to assume, perhaps subconsciously, that Spence's role as a reserve is in some manner indicative of his diminished capacity as a player due to the fallout from his injury. If, and hopefully when, the full ramifications of what Shazier brings to the table are on display, the appreciation of Spence and what he has accomplished will be easier to embrace.

Being thrown into the fire as he was last season has served to accelerate the development of Williams. It also highlights an interesting one-year turnaround where inside linebacker went from being one of the weaker areas of the team to one of the strongest and deepest. Add Terence Garvin to the mix, Dan Molls to the practice squad and Jordan Zumwalt to IR and you get the idea.

If one good thing came out of the preseason games in general, and the last one with Carolina in particular, it would be the reassurance that, by all appearances, Jarvis Jones is prepared to take a leap in his performance. What's significant, if you think about it, is that no matter how well Jones does, it's almost certain that it won't be a headline event, but just one of a number of storylines with this group. And let's not forget that one of those stories will be the return of Joey Porter.

Are we on the cusp of a new era of great Steelers linebackers?

Defensive secondary

A tale of two cities here. First the safeties. Deep, talented, highly respected (two of the four team captains were selected from this group). The questions are, can Troy maintain his health and can he and Mike Mitchell develop the necessary chemistry to achieve optimal effectiveness? Despite some fretting over misinterpreting some signals during spring drills, the operative questions concerning Shamarko Thomas are how quickly will he emerge into greatness and how do you find place for him on the field? Like inside linebacker, the indication of the strength of this group consists in who's consigned to the bottom of the depth chart.

Then there are the corners. The most important question here is whether they really are as pedestrian as some fear or are fans victims of misguided expectations. Here are the questions for this group. Were these guys (along with the safeties) the scapegoats for the failings of the front seven in 2013? If Steelers fans should know anything based upon watching Ben Roethlisberger week in and week out, it's that, given enough time, any decent quarterback can rip the best secondary to shreds. There isn't any defensive back that doesn't become increasingly incompetent when a pass play evolves beyond four seconds. Conversely, the reverse can be true if enough pressure is applied up front.

Is Ike Taylor as washed up as some thought? It leaked that Taylor played much of last season with an undisclosed injury that might have had more of an effect on his play than merely the ravages of age. Being the workout warrior that he is, reports of his demise may be ever so slightly premature. Will Cortez Allen respond during a contract year? Injuries slowed his development last season. So far, that hasn't been a concern. We should have an answer sooner rather than later.

Did Carnell Lake and LeBeau over-sell Antwon Blake, Brice McCain and Shaquille Richardson? We'll see. Not likely to know about Richardson for a year or more, and the clock won't start ticking for McCain until he's recovered from his current nick.

Special teams

Always the stepchild, this group could play an outsized role in the success and failure of this team early on. The ability, along with the defense, to provide relatively short, manageable fields for the offense via the kicking game and kick coverage could make the difference for an offense that may need some time to get its bearings early. On the other hand, keeping the field long for the defense may be of even greater importance, though it's likely that most observers won't even notice when they're being successful (but they'll certainly notice if they fail). Within this general task, some key questions arise.

Are Shaun Suisham's preseason struggles cause for alarm? Having observed him from the time when he played for Washington, PaVaSteelers and I have always viewed Suisham a little sideways; happy that he has been doing so well, but not quite trusting it would be sustainable. Here's hoping that the preseason was just an anomaly and that being named a team captain and the stability of a contract extension means that Suisham will continue his consistent, reliable play. This has been a real asset and necessary for team that may struggle with consistency as it grows and, therefore, may have a small margin of error in many games.

Is Brad Wing the answer at punter? This has been one of the most mysterious and inconsistent areas of the team over the past few years. Wing has earned his roster spot more or less by default, which doesn't necessarily mean that he didn't legitimately earn it, but concern is not an inappropriate thing at this stage.

What about Dri Archer? It looks promising for the rookie from Kent State. But then again the names Stefan Logan and Chris Rainey linger. It would be nice if Archer developed to the point where Antonio Brown could be retired from punt returns.

Summary

Remembering that this is a meditation on a best-case scenario for the 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers, what needs to happen in order for the team to be playing in January, and possibly February?

The AFC North. Haven't seen too many people picking Pittsburgh for the division. Good. Shouldn't have to explain the why of that to most readers, I'm sure you understand and probably agree. Keeping our egos in check is a good thing. The Bengals are favored most places. Also good. No doubts about the collection of talent available in Cincinnati. It is impressive. It's the culture and history of the team that's the issue here. The Bengals almost never overachieve, and they're always prime candidates to be one of those crews that end up doing far worse than expected. They lost two very good coordinators, which might also count for something. The schedule is favorable for Pittsburgh because those games don't come until late in the season when, hopefully, the Steelers should be at their strongest developmentally. The Ravens are always a problem but they'll have challenges being at the center of the firestorm over domestic violence, in addition to having similar developmental issues as Pittsburgh. Right now, my biggest concern is this opening game against Cleveland and an early return-match up in Ohio. This is as important an opening game as I can remember. Just as Cincinnati could be one of the teams that inevitably does less well than predicted, Cleveland could very well be the opposite, the cellar-dweller that makes the unexpected leap. Hard idea to accept for younger fans conditioned to disrespect the Browns in more or less knee-jerk fashion. I believe Pittsburgh will win on Sunday, but I don't consider it a fait accompli, nor would I be shocked if they were ambushed.

I believe a win in the opener is not just preferable, it may be essential.