I’m going to make what may sound, initially, to be at-best misinformed, and at-worst like an out-and-out lie: there was a lot to like about the Steelers’ defense on Sunday.
It just wasn’t in the secondary.
Artie Burns looked pretty good, and Sean Davis picked it up after a rough opening drive. Aside from that, though, the starting secondary got burned more often than hamburgers on a narcoleptic’s grill. Robert Golden was dreadful fulling in for Mike Mitchell — and he was the best of the rest.
Up front, things were a lot more cohesive and productive. There are certainly things to work on, and it will be interesting to see the pass rush once Bud Dupree is back in the lineup, but to say backups Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo have played fairly well so far would be an understatement of titanic proportions.
Here are three other observations of the Steelers’ defense from Sunday’s pre-season game against the Atlanta Falcons.
The Steelers need to invent ways to get Javon Hargrave on the field more often
Nothing that big should be that quick.
That’s usually the first observation I have every time I watch film of Hargrave, and it didn’t change one bit when re-watching the Steelers host the Falcons. From the first play, no one outside of, maybe, rookie outside linebacker T.J. Watt fired off the ball as consistently fast as “Gravedigger”. He wins a lot of battles by strength, but he wins an equal number of them by simply beating his man off the snap by a considerable margin.
And let’s talk, for a minute, about that strength. On the first defensive snap of the game, Hargrave was double-teamed and held, and he still dropped the running back for a one-yard loss. He simply bullied through the blocks.
Cam Heyward is still the best defensive lineman on the team, and I’ve said it could be Tuitt by the end of the season. But so far this pre-season, Hargrave is making his case to be in consideration for the title.
William Gay might finally be showing his age
I get that it’s just pre-season. I get that the veterans aren’t playing all that much, and maybe not even all that hard. But, of all the starters (or, in his case, the top slot cornerback), Gay has simply been the worst on the field, with the possible exception of Ross Cockrell, who spent more time in catch-up mode than a Heinz factory (get it?).
Cockrell, though, still has upside. Gay might have started his decline last season, although not to the extent some have claimed. If that drop-off began last year, it might be accelerating so far in 2017. Numerous times Sunday, he was caught a step or three behind, and there were several missed tackles. Not a good showing, at the very least, and certainly not good timing, with guys like Mike Hilton showing up big-time so far this pre-season.
At least Inside Linebacker isn’t the problem
For all the “issues” we saw Sunday with the mostly first-team defense, it’s clear that inside linebacker has the depth it needs. In fact, after re-watching the game, I can’t help but think there are going to be some very difficult cuts.
Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams are locks, and can be penned in as the starters. Tyler Matakevich has had a fine pre-season, and looked especially good in run support Sunday. He’s pretty much locked in as the top backup at this point, with L.J. Fort and Steven Johnson battling it out for the number-two reserve spot. And I’m not ready to count out Matt Galambos just yet, after seeing him make some fine plays Sunday. Chances are he ends up on the practice squad for a season, and he should be under-the-radar enough to survive the entire season there. If the Steelers keep five, then I’ve already named them. If they keep four, as I predict they will, it’s going to be a tough call between Fort and Johnson.