In the second installment of a three-part series that grades the Pittsburgh Steelers through the first quarter of the 2015 season, the focus shifts to the defensive side of the ball. After looking at the offense, we now take a look at the unit that ranks 13th in the National Football League in allowing 346 yards-per-game and 8th in points allowed.
Defensive Ends: A
The combination of Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward has been one of the primary strengths of Keith Butler's attempt to raise a once-proud defense from the dead.
Heyward, who took some time to flourish, has grown into the role of a veteran leader. Cam's 17 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble have him on track for career numbers. The son of Ironhead is also a leader in the locker room and a reliable presence on defense.
For as well as Heyward has been playing, it seems that Tuitt's star is shining even brighter than that of his mentor on the other side. In only his second season as a professional, the second-rounder from Notre Dame is blossoming into a dominating force that Steeler Nation has craved for a long time. Tuitt, 6'6" and 303 lbs, has racked up 21 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 2015.
Cam Thomas and L.T. Walton have both subbed-in and provide some depth, but the above-mentioned dynamic duo has been outstanding on John Mitchell's unit, a unit that had previously been known as sacrificial lambs charged with the responsibility of taking on blockers to free up linebackers for their shot at glory.
Nose Tackles: C
Steve McLendon's biggest problem is the fact that he doesn't have the warehouse-sized body of a Casey Hampton or a Joel Steed. While he has been serviceable in recent years, McLendon hasn't blown anybody up or passed anybody. In four contests in 2014, McLendon has only five tackles.
Daniel McCullers plays behind Steve on the depth chart, but he has been hampered by injuries since camp.
The nose guard position has been nothing more than average during the first quarter.
Outside Linebackers: C+
This was supposed to be the year that Jarvis Jones shed the bust title and broke out, but the 2013 first-rounder only has nine tackles on the season and has been outplayed by an aged veteran, James Harrison.
Harrison, with 15 tackles, a sack and a nose for the quarterback, is a better option than Jones and clearly is the emotional leader of the defense.
On the left side, both Arthur Moats and Bud Dupree are sharing time and playing inspired football. Moats has seven tackles and 1 1/2 sacks and has played fairly well, while Dupree has exceeded rookie expectations. The No. 1 pick out of Kentucky has proved he can play right away and has accumulated 11 tackles and 2 sacks.
Keep in mind, these are all part-time stats due to the OLB rotation; however, the team needs more of a persistent pass rush and are playing only slightly above average.
Inside Linebackers: A-
At the risk of being too generous with grades when evaluating a 2-2 team, I find it difficult to not give the inside backers an A. There were some weaknesses that justified a B+ rating, but there are too many positives to ignore.
When Ryan Shazier is healthy, he has the speed to get to the quarterback and make plays all over the field. In two games this season, Shazier has 22 tackles (15 in one game against San Fran), a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He is an impact player.
But here's the rub, he has not shown the ability to stay healthy. His kamikaze-style has kept him in street clothes. On the field, he's the face and motor of the defense. But he needs to stay on the field.
He also has struggled in pass coverage. This was apparent against the Patriots and the 49ers. But even with those noted deficiencies, the Steelers get better results when he's donning a helmet instead of a hoodie.
Lawrence Timmons has become a mainstay of the defense. He was rewarded last year with a selection to the Pro Bowl and continues to play like a cerebral assassin. LT has 30 tackles, a sack and a pass defense on the season. The nine-year vet is the signal caller and glue of the defense.
I feel like the Steelers have the best backups in the league at inside linebacker. Sean Spence (14 tackles and a sack) made impact plays in his two starts. Vince Williams has eight tackles and is a run-stopping stalwart. These two reliable understudies represent the greatest depth on the squad and make it easier to stomach an injury to a starter. They are probably starters on most NFL teams.
Well known is the Steeler philosophy of stacking the defensive line and linebackers with talent and rely on getting pressure on the passer and, then, fill-in-the-blanks later in the defensive backfield. There were times this year where that worked. But when the front seven can't get pressure, we are left watching the West Penn Burn Unit.
The Steelers' brass attempted to make corner a priority in the offseason, but Senquez Golson hurt his shoulder before camp and Doran Grant failed to show enough in camp. Enter the saving grace via a trade with Philadelphia, Brandon Boykin. But he is doing something wrong behind closed doors or in practice that I continue to find myself looking for him on the missing-persons wall every time I go to Walmart.
The incumbent corps of William Gay, Antwon Blake and Cortez Allen have been marginal at best.
The lack of pass defense has merited a rank of 18th, while surrendering 250 yards a game and 1,006 yards. It seems like they look better on paper than how they appear to the human eye.
A bright spot, however, has emerged in the form of Ross Cockrell. Cockrell, a second-year man from Duke who was not wanted in Buffalo and has shown promise in recent weeks.
I may be overly critical of this unit, but cornerbacks continue to serve as the overwhelming problem-child of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
With Will Allen having a career rebirth as a starter and a healthy Mike Mitchell dishing out vicious shots, this is the subsection of the defensive backfield that has shown the most improvement. But the position needs an upgrade and must be addressed high in the next draft.
Allen has 29 tackles, a sack and an interception in 2015 and has been a pleasant surprise and emerged as a fan favorite this year. Mitchell, although still undisciplined and reckless, has played much better than his disastrous debut with the team in 2014.
The clear disappointment of the unit is Shamarko Thomas. This was supposed to be the year that Thomas emerged as a starter and a standout, but Shamarko can't seem to find his way onto the field and (with the exception of special teams play) is invisible when on it.
In summary, the defense has started to perform better as a whole. Stopping the run has become more of a hallmark than in recent years, the front seven is slowly getting increased penetration and the pass defense is better than it was in Week One.
This is a unit on the rise, but it's still nowhere close to where it needs to be.