Heading into the 2016 regular season, I was able to ask some burning questions surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers to Football Outsiders writer Scott Kacsmar. He was kind enough to answer those questions, and the plan is to debut the answers in a multi-part series here at BTSC.
Today's topic was the defense side of the football. The Steelers spent some high draft picks in the secondary, but in today's NFL it isn't realistic to expect rookies to step in and be key cogs within the defense in their first professional season. So, can the Steelers defense be better with their current crop of defensive backs?
While the offense is considered one of the best in the league, the Steelers' defense leaves a lot to be desired. After sporting the 30th ranked pass defense in 2015, there were no real improvements made at the position. Should fans expect more of the same in 2016, or an improved unit due to the front 7?
You like to think that Keith Butler will have a better grasp of things in his second year as the defensive coordinator. Last year, the Steelers jumped from 13th in DVOA in Weeks 1-9 to eighth in DVOA in Weeks 10-17. In the last month of the season, including playoffs, the defense was actually playing at a higher level than the offense. I know it was A.J. McCarron and the Old Peyton Manning, but this defense was playing well enough in January to get to a Super Bowl. Maybe things would have been different with a healthy Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams, but I'm still obviously skeptical, as we detail in the book, about this defense matching wits with New England's offense. But I would be confident about Pittsburgh finding a way to outscore any other team in the AFC.
While the personnel has not changed much, there is enough talent here to have a solid defense again. Stephon Tuitt really came on last season, and you have to hope Bud Dupree can make a similar leap in his second season. I've really given up on expecting anything from Jarvis Jones, but it's now or never for him. Ryan Shazier needs to stay healthy for a full season, because he can be a Pro Bowl-caliber defender. The secondary might simply get better by not having Antwon Blake, who was awful in coverage and missed the most tackles (21) in the league in 2015. You like to see the young players step up here, but I wouldn't expect much from Artie Burns and Sean Davis this season. Senquez Golson has unfortunately been bitten deep by the injury bug so far in his career.
The truth in this scenario is based around the improvement of other key players, and less about the secondary. Ross Cockrell, William Gay and even Sean Davis should be good enough to win, but it is the front seven, as Scott mentioned above, which could be the true difference maker.
If Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt and Bud Dupree all take huge steps forward in 2016, combined with the steady consistency of Lawrence Timmons, Cameron Heyward and James Harrison, they should be a unit which Mike Tomlin would describe as "on the come".
The Steelers' offense looks to be legitimate, and due to that they don't need a Top 5 defense. Not that anyone would complain if that happened, but if the defense could be just around 10th overall and 15th in pass defense in the NFL, this Pittsburgh team could be very dangerous on both sides of the ball.
What say you? Are you comfortable with the team's secondary, and overall defense, heading into 2016?