By design the picture won't be entirely clear until they take the field in Foxboro in September, but you no longer have to read too far between the lines or possess exceptional intuition to get a pretty good understanding of the direction the Steelers defense is heading in 2015 and beyond. Here are two of the more dramatic developments in the last week.
Quickly now, how often are the Steelers involved in a trade? Newcomers have almost always come in the recent past via the draft or free agency, so that the rarity of this type of move is newsworthy in and of itself. We need to credit the peculiarities of the Chip Kelly experiment in Philadelphia that created a circumstance where a player like Boykin would be available at this time so inexpensively. Credit also to Steelers leadership for being nimble enough to take advantage.
What the move does most importantly is amp up the depth, experience and internal competition with a position group that would have to considered the weak link on the team. According to head coach Mike Tomlin's own words it is at least, in part, a response to the setback of Senquez Golson's injury. It also highlights the one person's trash is another person's treasure reality that is reflective of the difference between the defensive philosophies that are evolving in both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. In a nutshell, Boykin's height is a liability for the Eagles, but it is an irrelevancy in what appears to coming down the pike with the Steelers.
What the move is probably not about (and this needs to be said because some have, predictably, already gone there) a sign of failure on the part of any of the personnel currently on the field for the team. The reviews for Cortez Allen, for example, have been quite good so far with some observers saying that his struggles of the last year appear, so far, to be behind him. I would think that this move is more in the line of a response to the loss of Brice McCain and probably an upgrade at that.
Tomlin and the Cover 2
The Boykin acquisition complements nicely with a story that has an even greater resonance for the future direction of the team. With Dick LeBeau now gone, Tomlin, whose background has been defense and specifically secondary work, now has the freedom, and is exercising it, to take a more direct, hands on approach to the development of this side of the ball. While LeBeau is appreciated and will be missed, two things must be acknowledged and bears watching as we move forward. This transition is not simply that of replacing LeBeau with Keith Butler. The elevation of Olsavsky, the addition of Joey Porter and the involvement of Tomlin is bringing a lot of staff firepower to bear on this side of the ball. It is practical commonsense to hold to the position that changes to the incumbent defensive system would be minimal. Otherwise you have condemned the defense to experience the same type of growing pains that the offense experienced transitioning from the Arians to Haley systems. What seems apparent now is that the systemic changes will eventually be dramatic, but less disruptive.
The two significant takeaways for me were, that any thought that we might have that the Steelers were throwing in the towel on the philosophy of defensive dominance is probably wrong. This is not a zero sum game where greatness in one phase means mediocrity or worse in others. Just as the configuration of LeBeau's 3-4 was different from the 4-3 seventies Steel Curtain, what will emerge in the Butler Era, if successful will have its own structure as well. And it will probably be up to speed sooner rather than later. This will not be a long transition.
The second thing is that we need to look at the current secondary with new eyes. Many of us have been in agreement with Chip Kelly in that we have felt that height is an absolutely essential component of a good defensive back. We have, therefore, looked at Golson and Antwon Blake as deficient in a sense. But clearly the brain trust of the Steelers do not believe that height is a significant liability of the Cover 2 system that they are apparently installing. And you can certainly conclude that acquiring Boykin is a doubling down on that belief. We'll see.
The Steelers advantage
If you think about it there is something just a wee bit peculiar about the circumstances under which the team was able to obtain Boykin. They got an effective starter for what is essentially the equivalent of a ham sandwich. Boykin had a few things to say about the Kelly Administration that will keep the controversy around it percolating. I won't speak to what the truth may be in that situation. I honestly don't know. But we need to occasionally remind ourselves that you could fit comments and conversation from former players or staff of the Steelers franchise over the years into a thimble and still have room for more. While, as Kelly has said, Boykin might have liked it in Philly, he certainly wasn't exactly broken up about coming to Pittsburgh.
Players scorecard (so far)
Its awfully early. Remember, most other teams are just getting started with their camps, but there are some signs of players who seem to be winning and others who are losing for various reasons, most of it injury related.
Winners. Cortez Allen has already been mentioned. Although he got somewhat of a lukewarm assessment from SI.com's Peter King, most of the reviews have pretty good for Dri Archer. Among the offensive linemen; Marcus Gilbert, David DeCastro [here], Kelvin Beachum [here] and Alejandro Villanueva. King suggested that the receiving corps was just unfair, thought you might say that things a little mixed for Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant who is currently sidelined with an injury. Tight end Cameron Clear, running back DeAngelo Williams and quarterback Landry Jones who seems to be making the most of his increased reps while Bruce Gradkowski languishes on the PUP list.
Le'Veon Bell and Lawrence Timmons
These two seem to have an iron sharpens iron kind of thing going on, much like the relationship Ike Taylor and Antonio Brown had in recent camps. Both players seem to be taking on the mantle of leadership this team.
Winners (cont.). Anthony Chickillo. Tunch Ilkin said that you might have thought that he was the first round draft pick at times last week. I would say Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree were mixed. Shazier and Jones because of minor injuries that marred otherwise good work, and in Dupree's case being just inconsistent enough to allow Chickillo to grab the spotlight away from him. Vince Williams, Daniel McCullers and Doran Grant. Todd Haley [here] and Joey Porter [here]. Antonio Brown [here].
Losers. The big ones were Ross Scheurman whose journey ended with an injury settlement. Offensive linemen Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster and Mike Adams (all injury related). Senquez Golson. James Harrison (old man's disease). Mike Mitchell. Tajh Boyd.
Looking pretty good after this trade and his own contract extension.
Bruce Arians hired a woman assistant coach.
King's love letter to Latrobe
Giving credit to the league's best atmosphere for training camp.