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2018 Pittsburgh Steelers Team Needs: The Defense

Tough loss aside, the biggest concern is on the defensive side of the football.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Houston Texans Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Moving on with our lives... [Sigh]

Let’s be clear: The Steelers didn’t lose last Sunday. They got beat, and it happened because the defense got plowed. What would have changed it? An extra run stuffer on the Defensive Line? A different scheme? I doubt it. Even a healthy Shazier would have mattered more for his leadership than his play.

History proves that power running games are all but unstoppable once they gain momentum. Bettis; Riggins; Csonka; Eddie George; Okoye; you could only beat those attacks by delaying the flood until it was too late to do any good. If any of those offenses got going early, the opponent was S.O.L. The Jaguars are built in just that way and they got going early. It was a team and unit loss, so let’s move on.

How Can The Defense Get Better?

MACK ILB. The elephant in the room goes first. Will Ryan Shazier come back? The Debbie Downers can doom and gloom all they want but I won’t write him off. Nerve injuries tend to end up as yes-or-no situations. If he gets his function back it’s likely to be close to 100%. The alternative is 0%, at least from the football point of view. I don’t think anyone knows the answer, and certainly not with enough assurance to issue a medical guarantee. For our purposes that moves Mack ILB to the clear #1 priority going into the draft.

It may even be worth a double dip because the Steelers need one (but could easily use two) fast, cover-capable ILBs. There is a reason why many of us were pushing that idea going into last year’s draft when Shazier was healthy. Just imagine the potential of Big Nickel sub packages built around a pair of Shaziers rather than a trio of Safeties. [insert sigh of delight]. Mack ILB is the clear #1 priority. Period.

BUCK ILB. Not a need. Vince Williams has turned into a really fine, bang-’em-inside Buck, and Matakevich isn’t far behind. I’d have no objections to an ILB who can play both Mack and Buck - who would? - but it’s the run-chase-and-cover factor that we need to focus on.

RUSH OLB. The starting two are set with Watt and Dupree. Both are young and both are improving. But so what? There’s always room for more pass rushers. Nevertheless, in the absence of some problem we haven’t heard about, I would say OLB is a relatively low priority until Round 3 at the earliest. They’ll get someone athletic to keep feeding the pipeline, but it won’t be early unless the bargain is too extreme to ignore. Feel free to argue otherwise in the Comments.

DEFENSIVE LINE. The final game aside, Pittsburgh’s defensive line has been a major strength all year in both quality and depth. Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, Tyson Alualu, and L.T. Walton. Three stars and two starters for two or three positions. I suppose there might be room for a real space eater on the inside as an anchor. Casey Hampton might have been the one player to single-handedly counter the Jags, and we can now be clear that McCullers doesn’t fill that niche. That said, it’s a pretty limited niche nowadays and I wonder whether Pittsburgh’s linemen would get abused the same way in another rematch. Round 3 at the earliest and probably not until Round 5, but more likely to happen in that Day-3 range.

BOX SAFETY. See the discussion of Mack ILB. Sean Davis is a keeper who will only improve as he keeps on learning the game. One gets the sense it’s his above-the-neck skills that need to improve the most. There’s room for depth behind him and also for someone who can step in to play hybrid ILB/Safety in Big Nickel packages. There may even be room for two someones. My bet would be on Mack ILB in Round 1 and ILB/Safety hybrid in Rounds 2-5, available talent allowing.

FREE SAFETY. Mike Mitchell is a solid enough player with an All-Pro mouth. He might do better to tone it down, but I’ll step up and say he earns his salary. He may not be a bargain for that money, but he’s not a disgrace. On the other hand, he’s getting on toward the big 3-O, there isn’t a lot of real speed on the bench behind him, and he hits hard enough to move toward the box if a fast and rangy coverage player shows up to take his place. Adding two safeties might make sense.

People have speculated about Brian Allen being big enough to move toward safety but that seems to be all fan-generated buzz. At this point, I think it’s fair to assume that Allen is tracked toward being an Ike Taylorish corner rather than a safety. Speaking of which...

BOUNDARY CORNER. Artie Burns is a classic boundary corner, the sort of fast and rangy talent you put on the likes of Martavis Bryant and his physical clones. It’s a tough job but, by now, it should be clear to everyone that (a) he’s already a solid No. 2, and (b) he’s still improving and has an excellent chance to become a true No. 1. Joe Haden lacks the size you look for on the boundary but has always made up for it with speed, savvy, quickness and technique. Inches are not the be-all and end-all, and he proves it! One can argue about whether the 2018 Joe Haden is more of a $6 Million man than the $10 Million he’s slated to earn, but he’s definitely not a weak point. Cam Sutton is built almost exactly like Haden (5-11, 190-ish) and plays a lot like him too. That makes three viable boundary corners who have proven something, two of which can easily move inside to the slot should the situation call for it.

And then there’s Brian Allen, the 6-3, 211-lb. enigma. Just to remind everyone, Allen was picked in 2017 as a Round 5, boom-or-bust physical freak with almost no college experience at the position. He’s pure stereotype: a young man with every measurable asset you look for, but no real film to rely on, and certainly no well-built technique. I’d estimate that 60% of these guys disappear in a year or two, 30% learn enough technique to claim backup and special-teams duties, and a maximum of one in ten grabs the brass ring and reminds us that Ike Taylor fit that same description. These young men are classic practice-squad material. But, but, but! The Steelers did not put Brian Allen on the practice squad. Why not? He looked too good and flashed too often, all through training camp. Brian Allen would have been poached, everyone knew it, and the team liked him so much that he accordingly spent all year on the 53 despite his undeniable lack of skills to play his designated spot on the defense. As a native Pittsburgher, I can also say that the reports/rumors around town have continued to sound like 10-year olds trying to play it cool on the night before Christmas. If that great big box beneath the tree really holds what we hope it will, the 2018 cornerback roster will be truly special gift for Steeler Nation.

Or not. “If” is hardly a guarantee and that glowing description is full of question marks. Scrape it down to brass tacks and the only fully proven corner isn’t what he used to be and has a contract that will balloon to $10 Million. Burns may be getting there but he hasn’t arrived yet, and Sutton showed a lot for a rookie but not for a veteran. Sophomore leaps are common but can never be assumed. And as for Allen, all we’ve really seen is that great, big box with the glitzy paper. Thus corner isn’t off the board completely, but I think we can agree it isn’t the concern for 2018’s draft that it has been for at least a decade.

SLOT CORNER. Mike Hilton has been the surprise star of the year and just got re-signed for the 2018 season. That’s one. Haden and Sutton have the build and skill set to move into the slot as well. That makes three. This simply isn’t a need.

Those are my takes. Share yours in the Comments.