Doomsday prophecy. It's what comes to mind when you hear Pittsburgh Steelers fans talk about the 2015 defense. You know, the defense who doesn't have all it's parts yet with the 2015 NFL Draft a week away. The same defense who had it's struggles in 2014, and suddenly the loss of Ike Taylor is the final nail in the coffin for the upcoming team's defensive unit. Excuse me here, but are we all watching the same team? Let me elaborate.
The 2014 Steelers defense wasn't good. No one ever claimed it was. Last year's unit gave up 5,654 yards (ranked18th in the league), averaged 353.5 yards per game (also 18th in the NFL), was ranked 27th against the pass giving up 253 yards a game, was 6th against the run giving up 100.3 yards per game and ranked 18th giving up 23 points per game, on average.
Did you digest all those numbers? Hopefully, because they weren't very good. Remember, these stats were with legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, with defensive end Brett Keisel, with cornerback Ike Taylor, with outside linebacker Jason Worilds and with legendary safety Troy Polamalu. All of whom are no longer on the team's roster for one reason or another. The only other member of the defense who has departed the team is defensive back Brice McCain.
So, what's my point? The point is how bad the defense was with these players, and before you go to the bottom of the article to type in your comment about how I am proving how the 2015 defense will be worse due to these departures, let me finish.
Take a look at those individuals and what the team is missing in terms of production.
Troy Polamalu would top most people's lists of players the team will miss. Polamalu had 61 tackles in 2014, and 4 of those went for a loss of yardage. He had only one pass defense, one forced fumble and recovered one fumble. That's it. No interceptions, no touchdowns, no sacks...nothing. Fans wondering if Shamarko Thomas is capable of that production? The answer is a resounding yes. If Thomas has limitations it is in the passing game and coverage, not in run support and tackling.
Let's move to Brett Keisel. Keisel had 17 total tackles (his season was cut short due to injury) and one of those was for a loss. He had 5 passes defended and was able to snag an interception. On top of those numbers, Keisel had one sack on the season. As if he didn't prove this as a rookie, does anyone believe Stephon Tuitt isn't capable of exceeding those expectations? Absolutely.
Now to Ike Taylor. Taylor, like Keisel, had his season hampered by a broken arm, but when he was in the game it wasn't pretty. Taylor had 16 tackles, one for a loss, defended two passes and that is where his stat sheet turns into a doughnut shop. Taylor was a shell of his former self in 2014 and was purposefully not re-inserted into the lineup when he was deemed healthy. The team opted with McCain and Antwon Blake rather than the crafty veteran fans are saying the team can't live without.
How about McCain, since his name was brought up. McCain had 25 tackles, one for a loss, and had 6 passes defended with 3 interceptions. Blake took one of those interceptions back for a touchdown (thank you Blake Bortles) and also recovered a fumble. To be honest, if fans are worried about replacing production, it will be McCain's production not anyone else previously mentioned in this article.
Then we move on to Worilds. The now retired outside linebacker received over $9 million dollars in 2014, but didn't play like it. Worilds had 40 tackles last season, with 7.5 sacks. He defended two passes and was able to have add an interception (thank you Joe Flacco) to his resume. On top of that was a force fumble and two fumble recoveries. Worilds 7.5 sacks was tied for the team lead, but fans are concerned whether Arthur Moats will be able to replace Worilds and match the production. Moats played in about half of the defensive snaps Worilds had last year, and produced 23 tackles, 4 sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. If I'm a betting man, I put my money on Moats at least equaling Worilds' 2014 production.
Is there cause for concern over the defensive secondary? Sure, but I believe Thomas will be able to fill in for the 2014 Polamalu, and here is hoping Cortez Allen can replace McCain's production allowing Antwon Blake and possibly a 2015 draft pick anchor the nickel cornerback position. The Steelers 2015 defense is a young unit, but a unit which was given a lot of experience in 2014. Ryan Shazier is bound to improve, if he can stay healthy, and the same can be said about Tuitt and Daniel McCullers along the defensive front.
Lost among the shuffle is the fact LeBeau is now calling the Tennessee Titans organization home. Keith Butler finally has the reigns to the horse he has been hoping to ride for years now. What changes will Butler make? Will he rely on sub package football as much as LeBeau did? Will he drop his pass rushers into coverage as much as his predecessor? Those answers can't be answered until the season begins, but you can't expect the same old defense when someone new is calling the plays.
The 2014 Steelers defense was bad, but that doesn't equate to a dismal defensive effort in 2015. The Steelers have the possibility of replacing the production left in 2014 with players who could equal or even better those numbers in 2015. Simply put, if the Steelers could improve their pass defense to even 10th in the NFL, this defense would be a defense which could not only win football games, but, paired with the Steelers' incredible offense, could be championship caliber.