Year in, year out, the Steelers are a team that plays with an old school, Steel Town mentality and it shows on the field — especially on defense.
In watching the pre-season this year, it’s easy to see that if Pittsburgh remains healthy, they will undoubtedly field a fast and physical defense. This unit is set to take the headlines away from its counterpart on the other side of the ball. For years it was Ben Roethlisberger’s team. The Killer B’s. High flying offense with a defense that constantly sprung leaks. This offseason it’s been all about the improved high-flying offense
Whether it be stopping the run, the over middle passes, or just plain giving up too many big plays, although always physical, it’s been far from consistent. And it’s time for a change.
Meet the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers defense
Up front defensively, the Pittsburgh Steelers will tout one of the toughest and deepest rooms seen in Pittsburgh in a while. Of course, Cam Heyward headlines the group. And although on the wrong side of thirty by a few years, he is a rock on the right side. A run stopping, quarterback-chasing goon, who has been making his case for the Hall of Fame these last few years. If his partner, Larry Ogunjobi can stay healthy, it will be the best end tandem going back to when Stephon Tuitt was healthy, which when he was, the line wreaked havoc.
In waiting is DeMarvin Leal. A little bit of a swiss army knife in his own right as he lined up in multiple positions last season. Young and learning behind a great, as well as being a high motor guy to give the main guys a rest. With some schematic ingenuity, he can be a featured playmaker. Throw in a growing Armon Watts or Isaiahh Loudermilk and the depth is set with promise for the future.
In the middle will be a rotation of Montravius Adams and rookie Keeanu Benton. Benton is the future and not just in the middle.
Benton has been very surprising with his pass rush skills as he wasn’t asked to get after the passer much in his college days, but he has shown the motor as well as the chops to get after the quarterba. Much like Leal, he is liable to line up all over the line depending on the situation looking like he will start the season as the prime run stopper in the middle. Huge confidence in a rookie but it sounds and looks like he has earned it.
Behind the line, Pittsburgh looks to have shored up a weak link of a position group that has haunted the team going back to the career ending injury to Ryan Shazier. Ryan has defied the odds in his recovery and is speaking very highly of what he has seen out of this new position group.
Cole Holcomb looks to be the play caller. And a solid one. He is one of those guys that has experience, shown that he is a playmaker and does the routine routinely but has had health issues. This pre-season he has been lights out. Learning on the fly while showing off his sideline-to-sideline veteran presence. Very physical with coverage abilities, Cole is an X factor for this year’s defense. If his play nears elite, the Steelers may field one of the better units we’ve seen in the NFL these last few years.
Next to and behind him are Elandon Roberts. As an old school football fan, seeing Roberts fly downhill sends chills down your spine. He’s a thumper and is ready to take on whatever comes his way. His attitude is the standard of Steeler football that has been missed except for the brief glimpses we’ve seen of Mark Robinson. Who himself is waiting and eager to hit the field as well as the opponent. He’s still a work in progress but the future is bright if he can continue to learn the LB position after being a college RB.
Finally, is Kwon Alexander. Kwon has had his own injury issues in what is otherwise a solid NFL career. A sideline-to-sideline thumper, Kwon is that missing piece as a substitution that looks to make splash plays every time he steps on the field.
The coaches have a variety of skill sets to employ at the ILB position, something that is new to the team. Each one of them is unique in their playmaking ability but one thing for sure is they all bring the lumber.
The back end of the defense is in good hands with the best Safety in all of football in Minkah Fitzpatrick.
All he does is make plays and is looking to be able to do more freelancing this year in three safety sets where he will be partnered with new addition thumper in strong safety Keanu Neal and holdover Damontae Kazee. Kazee can be a ball hawk and isn’t afraid to inch close to the line.
Communication is key on the back end which will allow Minkah to veer from schemed plays somewhat and act upon what he is seeing on the field. Minkah is one of the more cerebral players in the league with athleticism to spare.
Add in a growing Miles Killebrew as depth and a special team’s standout, big plays will happen but shouldn’t be from the opposing team as often as you may have seen these last couple years. The overall growth of the defense should elevate the play of the Steelers last defense.
Flanked outside, the Steelers have future HOF candidate Patrick Peterson.
Peterson, like Cam Heyward, is on the wrong side of thirty but is still an upper-echelon player at his position. Not necessarily suited to man up on the outside play after play at this point, he will move around. Between his and Minkah’s experience, they should be able to get the younger guys lined up and ready for action.
Joey Porter Jr. looks set to take the field in Week 1, though he may not be a full-time starter and only enter the game as a package player to start. Unlike Joey’s father, JP Jr. is quiet, allowing his play on the field to talk for him. His working against George Pickens and Dionte Johnson in practice can only refine his skills. Elite qualities emerge from all contests.
Levi Wallace gets the job done on the outside. A solid contributor once seeing the field last season, Levi may be set for a breakout season. Teams are going to test JP Jr early but are less likely to test Pat when it’s he and Levi on the field. So much of the backend success is going to rely on the coaches having the right players in the game at the right moment.
The idea is to be sound regardless of who’s in but each of these guys brings something different to the table. That includes shortcomings as well as playmaking ability. At the nickel, it looks as though it will be a roundtable of Pat P, Elijah Riley, and Chandon Sullivan. Sullivan really stepped up his game as camp progressed and Elijah Riley was solid from day one.
Sort of a “tweener” in his abilities, Riley may have found his home at the Nickel spot for the Steelers and should see the field regularly with Sullivan. Pittsburgh has youth as well as a strong, capable, play-making veteran presence on the back end that is working quickly to become a cohesive unit. Following initial roster cuts, the team signed All-Pro CB Desmond King II, another option with some experience at nickel as well as on the outside.
Whatever level you consider the back end of this defense to be, multiply that number by 10 due to the nature of the next unit.
Arguably the best edge tandem in the league calls its home Pittsburgh, PA.
Defensive MVP TJ Watt and up-and-coming star, Alex Highsmith, have the rest of the league on notice. Highsmith just signed a deal that will keep this couple together for the next few years. This alone will ensure the Steelers' defense is formidable, even if other cracks arise.
The level of pressure TJ and Alex bring from play to play is almost unmatched when they are healthy. And they’ve never been healthy together as prime players until this year. As much as it won’t be a breakout, the Steelers pass rush has an opportunity to place itself in the record books this year. With TJ already matching the NFL sack record (they should have given him that last sack that year) and Alex finding his groove as a premier player, 60-plus sacks are not out of the question if key playmakers are healthy. As a matter of fact, it’s probably a given.
The edge drives this scheme and has since the days of the Biltzburgh. Pittsburgh has two guys that not only get after the passer but set the edge on run plays as well as any team in the league. The defensive line additions should only help these guys wreak more havoc. The style of play the team is set to display offensively should put pressure on the opposing offense. Controlling the clock adds pressure on a team to score now, which means passing, which means playing into the strength of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Finding Markus Golden prior to camp relieved a ton of pressure as depth, or lack thereof, at the edge position was highlighted by TJ’s injury last year. Although it’s impossible to replace his overall impact on the defense and team, the Steelers are much better suited in case of an emergency than they have been recently. Markus is a playmaker and has had a solid career. He can give either guy a break, although the opposing QB will note that TJ is out, it won’t mean as much this year.
Many are calling Nick Herbig the steal of the draft. Although that will not be known for some time yet, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, it might just be a duck.
Herbig has done nothing short of silencing every draft critic as well as having established himself as a key role player on this defense. In a league where many a young man has made a name for himself this summer, Nick is at the top of the list.
Herbig showed the athleticism and football tape to deserve to be drafted higher before his short arms got in the way. Partnered with Markus, who also dealt with his share of draft shortcomings, length being one, Nick is not short on mentorship. Picking the brain of his alma mater brother TJ and learning from guys that do not have TJ’s freakish athleticism, Nick is on the fast track to being a household name beyond Pittsburgh’s city limits.
There will be subtle last-minute changes, possibly a pickup from another team’s cuts, but this is the core. At the time this was written a note went out that the Steelers were looking to sign CB Desmond King II. This would probably mean the end for Pierre or either Sullivan or Riley. These subtle changes will occur throughout the season.
But here you have a group of young players ready to burst onto the scene coupled with superior coaching and strong veteran leadership in key positions, that looks to take the field September 10th and embark on this season. Anything can happen but for now…..
Welcome to the 2023 season.