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Steelers’ defense still searching for their identity, both in personnel and scheme

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As we analyze the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense, as it stands prior to the combine, what are some realistic improvements we can hope for next season?

NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Jacksonville at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers’ defense has arrived at a crossroads. During the past couple of seasons, the defense has experienced an uncharacteristic change in philosophy. While the slight changes in terminology and player responsibilities might seem minor to some, they represent changes just the same.

Transitioning from geriatric marvel Dick LeBeau to his longtime understudy Keith Butler seemed to make perfect sense. A complete defensive overhaul wasn’t required for a team harboring championship aspirations. Only a few tweaks here and there seemed necessary.

The team had run the 3-4 defense for decades with great success, and had drafted accordingly, so why try to reinvent the wheel now? The team could only hope for a smooth transition from the bend-but-don’t-break mantra favored by LeBeau to the more aggressive, penetrating style preferred by Bulter.

There has indubitably been mixed results.

Butler’s defense doesn’t require the defensive line to anchor at the point of impact and occupy multiple blockers to keep the linebackers clean to make plays. This had been a longtime staple in LeBeau’s scheme. Butler asks his linemen to read and react, first diagnosing the play and then aggressively pursuing the ball in hopes of creating more splash plays. The linebackers have to be multifaceted, as they may be required on any play to set the edge against the run, rush the passer, or drop in coverage. This slight change in defensive philosophy appeared to be a better fit for the team’s personnel. As presently constructed, the Steelers’ defense is quicker and more athletic than in recent years, but they’ve uncharacteristically struggled against the run and have suddenly shown a penchant for giving up big plays in the passing game, despite predominantly adhering to zone coverage on the back end, a scheme specifically designed to prevent them.

I believe the struggles against the run are not due to a lack of talent or effort, but can be attributed to errors in execution, such as overpursuit or losing zone responsibility by not trusting in the relatively new scheme. Many times the defense gave up big runs simply because some players weren’t disciplined and tried too hard to make a big play. This allowed far too many cutback lanes with players out of position. I feel it’s reasonable to expect the run defense to improve exponentially as the players achieve a better understanding of the scheme and their individual roles within the defense. While there are still holes to be filled, and many questions not yet answered, many of the pieces are already in place.

Cameron Heyward has continued to improve year after year, and finally had a Pro Bowl-type performance last season. His play bordered on dominant most of the time. Inexplicably, there were stretches in some games where he seemed to disappear. He needs to work hard to find ways to assure these instances are few and far between. He’s too valuable a player and leader on the team.

Stephon Tuitt undoubtably fell short of his own expectations after suffering an arm injury on the first defensive series of the season. He displayed impressive toughness by playing through the pain, but was obviously never close to full strength. He remains a young player with exceptional potential to be an outstanding bookend performer beside Heyward. Maybe this will be the year he puts it all together.

I fear Javon Hargrave has been miscast as a nose tackle in the 3-4 base defense. He would be a disruptive force playing tackle in a 4-3 defense, which better fits his skill set. But his best value to the team might be be achieved through a trade to obtain an additional draft pick or a player better suited to the defense. That isn’t to say he doesn’t currently have value on the field, only that he will need to be utilized differently in the future if the team is going to maximize his potential.

Tyson Alualu was a pleasant surprise. He was a versatile, steady performer. After struggling to live up to his Top-10 draft status in Jacksonville, he flourished last season with Pittsburgh under more realistic expectations. He can play any position on the line and he might be required to play more early downs at nose tackle next season.

The linebacker position has more questions than answers, even though it has been a point of emphasis in the last few drafts. There have been a few swings and misses, to say the least, but let’s try to stay positive.

The biggest question is obviously Ryan Shazier’s long-term health. He seems to be making great progress in his rehabilitation, but his future as a professional football player is still highly in doubt. That’s nowhere near the most important thing on anyone’s mind right now, but it does have to be addressed. That gigantic hole will have to be filled.

What can we expect from T.J. Watt in his second season? Will his work ethic and obvious football instincts allow him to improve on his strong rookie season or will he suffer the dreaded sophomore slump? Only time will tell.

Will the Steelers pick up the fifth-year option on Bud Dupree and will his play on the field finally match up to his outstanding athletic abilities? Both questions will have to be answered this season.

Vince Williams is more of a known commodity at this point in his career. He is a reliable, steady overachiever. Probably better suited as a rotational player than as a full-time starter, he has nonetheless proven to be effective if paired with a speedy partner who can mask some of his shortcomings. Easier said than done.

Tyler Matakevich is not the answer. He’s a gutty, hard nosed player who has carved out a niche on the team. Exceptional effort on all the special team units has solidified his value to the team, but he just doesn’t posses the required athleticism to be a regular contributor on defense.

I feel the secondary is a tale of two stories. The cornerback position is becoming one of strength, while the safety position is anything but.

Joe Haden was a terrific pick-up — a proven veteran who provided strong play while contributing a steadying influence for the whole defense. He’s happy just to finally be playing for a winning team.

Artie Burns didn’t shown the desired improvement in his second season and, at times, seemed unwilling to tackle. Hopefully the new position coach can assist in his development.

Mike Hilton was a revelation! His speed, quickness, and all-out effort was a sight to behold. He seemed to make splash plays every game, whether it be via sack, forced fumbles, deflections, or tackles for loss. The slot position is now in good hands.

Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen are both young prospects with excellent potential. Sutton missed most of the season after suffering a preseason injury, but was impressive when called on late in the season. It was a small sample size, but impressive nonetheless. Allen really only saw special-teams duty, but his vast upside was on full display just watching him run around the field. No wonder the Steelers were afraid to try and sneak him on the practice squad. There have been rumors that the Steelers may try to move one of these young men to safety, which makes sense because that position is anything but settled.

Mike Mitchell had the misfortune of being mis-drafted by the legendary Al Davis. Davis was enamored with a player’s forty time. Mitchell ran a fast forty time which led the Raiders to draft him in the second round. His on-field performance in college didn’t justify this draft position, and the rest is history. He’s never possessed the necessary instincts and techniques required for the position, and the years haven’t been kind. He’s simply not an NFL-caliber safety. Honestly, the Pittsburgh Steelers currently only have one player of this type on their roster, and he’s a work-in-progress to say the least.

Sean Davis has everything you could want or need for the position — physically, that is. In terms of football savvy, however, it might be a different story. He was maddeningly inconsistent last season. He both created and gave up splash plays, often times in the same game. A few times in the same drive. When he was unsure of what to do, he seemed hopelessly bewildered. I haven’t seen a player that confused since Kordell Stewart back in the day. Davis has to put in the work and be the recipient of improved coaching next season. Maybe he can improve if provided a better player next to him. We can only hope.

In conclusion, I feel the Steelers’ two most glaring positions of need are inside linebacker and safety. Potential starters are required at each position, as well as improved depth in each area. This must be addressed during the off-season through free agency and the draft. I trust the Steelers’ front office to be up to the task.

What’s your opinion?