In 2012, the Pittsburgh Steelers were on a two-game losing streak and were on their way to their first 8-8 season under Mike Tomlin, when Ryan Clark declared, "we are a spoiled bunch," when talking about the expectations of the Steelers' defense. Indeed, the Steelers' history is full of many great defenses, and over the years it is easy to become accustomed to expecting the defense to rank among the top ten in the NFL; 2014 was not one of those years.
The 2014 Steelers' defense finished ranked 18th in scoring defense in the NFL, the third-worst ranking ever in the franchise's history. Many questions as to why the defense played so poorly stemmed from the age of some players on the roster, the ineffectiveness of some of the younger players, as well as whether the scheme in place from longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was still one that could be used with a great deal of success in today's NFL.
Going into 2015, the Steelers have a lot of questions about their defense. Some of those questions become topics discussed daily on BTSC through the draft articles, such as whether the Steelers should go for a cornerback or a 3-4 pass rusher, and these are good questions for fans who are concerned with the direction of the defense. There is still not a lock-down defensive back, nor is there a dominant pass rusher on the team.
Cortez Allen, whom was signed to a five-year $26 million contract in September of 2014, only started seven games, had two interceptions and struggled through most of the season. Troy Polamalu is a weekly discussion for Steelers' fans on whether he will or won't retire after a season where he only recorded one pass defensed and his highlights of the season were one forced fumble and one fumble recovered. Jarvis Jones' second season in the NFL, after being the 17th pick of the 2013 draft, failed to inspire confidence in the idea that Jones could become a key part of a future great defense. He only started in 3 games, played in seven, and one of his two sacks he recorded all season were in the game where he was injured in Carolina and placed on the injured reserve/designated to return list. His performance was lackluster enough to garner the attention of ex-Steelers' linebacker, Gregg Lloyd, who compared Jones to the average guy who plays at the golf course Lloyd frequents.
You know the situation right now, lots of questions, not a lot of answers. But there are bright spots, even some that draw parallels with past Steelers defenses that were the best in the league at their respective times.
For example, the 2002 and 2003 Steelers' defenses were each in the worst eleven seasons for the Steelers' rankings with respect to points allowed. The future looked bleak as far as whether the Steelers could rebound and become a team contending in the playoffs after 2003. However, several rookies who were on the 2003 team would become key parts of the Steelers' defensive nucleus as they gave up the least amount of points in the NFL in four of eight seasons between 2004-2011 (meaning they were the best defense in the NFL in four of eight seasons).
The two rookies of note from 2003 were, of course, safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor. Though they were unsure commodities going into 2004, the two proved their worth over time. Other young players that were unproven in 2003 included players such as safety Chris Hope and middle linebacker Larry Foote, both whom were selected in the middle rounds of the 2002 draft. These four players would each become starters that would be key for the run to Super Bowl XL, as well as a large part of the Steelers' best ever regular season record of 15-1 in 2004, when the defense gave up the least amount of points in the league for the first time since 1978.
While a lot of credit for turning the 15th ranked defense in 2003 to the league's best in the 2004 has to go to the return of Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator in 2004, the emergence of the several young talents cannot be ignored.
So how does this relate to the 2015 Steelers? Well let's start by looking at the rookies that are on the defense.
The first and second round picks for 2014 were both defensive players that saw the field a considerable amount in their rookie seasons. The first round pick, linebacker Ryan Shazier, only started in five games, played in nine, and recorded 27 tackles with one pass defensed, but his athleticism was impressive to note. BTSC guru, Paper Champions, gave a great breakdown of Shazier's abilities back in February, go take a look if you missed it. The team's second round pick, Stephon Tuitt, eventually became the starter towards the end of the season, starting four regular season games as well as the team's playoff loss against the Baltimore Ravens. Tuitt took time to become a force, but showed a lot of potential playing the run and the pass as the season went on. His highlight play of the season was undoubtedly running down Kansas City Chiefs' running back, Jamaal Charles, and delivering a crushing hit to force a fumble for a key turnover in a big game for the Steelers late in the season.
Both rookies showed promise for the future defensive units the Steelers use to take the field, despite the defense's poor number and results in 2014. But they are not alone in the youth movement that looks to make the nucleus that soon could be recognized as one of the NFL's elite. Second year linebacker, Vince Williams, played well enough in his rookie season to become the starter for 11 of the 15 games he played in 2013. In 2014, Williams only started twice because of the inclusion of Shazier, whom started five times, as well as the return of Sean Spence, whom started nine games for Pittsburgh and is another member of the youth movement for the Steelers' defense. It's pretty much a given that the Steelers have a good crop of players to pick from at middle linebacker, despite their lack of apparent depth at outside linebacker.
Other young players can also be mentioned as candidates for future key members of a tough defense; Antwon Blake, who will be 25 at the start of the 2015 season, only started once for the Steelers, but flashed potential at different points of the season as he made big plays in big moments. His interception of Andrew Luck in the end zone quelled a comeback attempt against the Indianapolis Colts, as did his forced fumble of A.J. Green against the Cincinnati Bengals in week 17 that helped lock up the AFC North crown. Blake still has a ways to go before he can earn a consistent starting spot for the roster, but he, along with other youngsters such as Daniel McCullers and Shamarko Thomas look to be up to the challenge.
The Steelers' defense also has proven veteran players in Cameron Heyward, Lawrence Timmons and William Gay that did well in 2014 despite the unit's poor rankings.
Gay recorded three interceptions in 2014 at the age of 29, very similar to how Deshea Townsend made three interceptions in 2003 at the age of 28 (except for the part where Gay returned all three of his interceptions for touchdowns). Timmons is the same age as James Farrior was in 2003 when Farrior emerged as a solid veteran for the Steelers. Both Timmons in 2014 and Farrior in 2003 led their respective defenses in tackles in making 90 or more. Jeff Hartman wrote a solid piece about how Heyward is now the torch-bearer of the legacy of great defensive linemen that have played in the Steelers' 3-4 defensive scheme, which couldn't be more true as he led the team in sacks with 7.5.
Farrior also could be compared to another Steelers' defender from 2014, Mike Mitchell. Bryan DeArdo's piece on Mitchell yesterday had an astute observation as to how Mitchell's first season after being signed through free agency with the Steelers could be similar to that of Farrior's first season after signing with Pittsburgh in free agency. His first season also didn't live up the expectations of his free agency signing in his first season with Pittsburgh, much like Mitchell, but Farrior would become a key leader in the nucleus of a defense that would lead Pittsburgh to it's two most recent Super Bowl victories. While Mitchell still has to fill that role make the comparison more true, it is not a done deal that he won't be able to make a more positive impact in future Steelers' defenses, even in 2015.
It should also not be overlooked that the 2015 Steelers will also have a new defensive coordinator in Keith Butler, who can help these Steelers forge their new nucleus with his own defensive scheming.
When I heard what Ryan Clark said in 2012 about being spoiled, I had to agree. I remember watching the Steelers' defense between 2004-2010 and feeling disappointed if allowed the defense allowed even three yards on a running play. That became a standard which in hindsight, was ridiculously high to maintain for as long as that defensive nucleus did. It's not normal for a defense to do that, and that's why we were enjoying one of the best times to be a Steelers fan over the past 10 years, but to get to that point, it took time for the Steelers to see young players come in and blossom over the years to become stalwart talents that forged an elite defense.
Similarly, it has taken time for the Steelers to gain those young players who could become those leaders in the near future. There have been misses in recent drafts, like Ziggy Hood, Curtis Brown and others, just like there were misses in finding the core for the mid-2000's defense, such as Alonzo Jackson, Ricardo Colclough and Scott Shields.
The transition of the Steelers' 2003 defense to the 2004 defense is proof that such a turnaround can occur, though not a guarantee. The core of players that led the Steelers' defense between 2004-2011 was a rare mix of talents where in a span of eight seasons, was the best in the league at preventing their opponents from scoring every other year. That's not something you can just replicate on a whim, nor is it something any fan should take for granted.
The Steelers' 2014 defensive performance was a cause for alarm to many fans, much like the 2002 and 2003 defenses were, but also much like those players of the Steelers past, opportunity knocks for many of the young defensive players on the current Steelers' roster. Let's hope that they open the door.