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Making the Leap: Steelers fielding title-caliber defense

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Heading toward training camp, football fiends thirst for breakout potential. Who or what is the next big thing in football? In Around The NFL's "Making the Leap" series, Gregg Rosenthal spotlights emerging units to keep an eye on in 2017.

Mike Tomlin has been waiting for this defense, his defense, for a decade.

Two years removed from legendary Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau's exit, Tomlin is running a scheme in Pittsburgh closer to the one that helped build his reputation as a coaching prodigy. Unsung Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert has constructed a foundation of defensive players entering their primes who combine explosiveness and continuity, led by front-seven disrupters Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree. Three promising defenders from last year's rookie crop look ready to take the next step. Pittsburgh's offense possesses an unfair amount of talent, taking pressure off the defense.

If Tomlin doesn't deliver a return to Steelers defensive dominance now, it's never going to happen.

A strong core

Tomlin has identified his guys. The same 11 Steelers defenders barely left the field during two playoff victories last season, largely because they stopped drives by the Dolphins and Chiefs so quickly. Ten of those 11 players are back this season, with the exception being linebacker Lawrence Timmons, a veteran whose departure was telling.

Colbert previously made mistakes by holding on to Steelers stalwarts too long. Timmons was a great contributor for a decade, but keeping him would have slowed down an otherwise-speedy linebacker group. Not to mention, Timmons' old position as an every-down inside linebacker might no longer exist in Tomlin's vision.

This is not your drunk uncle's Steelers 3-4 defense. Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler mix up their alignments like most of the rest of the NFL, playing with four down linemen often (depending on the opponent's strength). The secondary incorporates more of the Cover 3 and Cover 2 zone-defense looks Tomlin grew up with. He's able to get more creative up front because his foundation players are so versatile.

The Steelers were a different defense after outside linebacker Bud Dupree returned from a sports hernia surgery in Week 12. Dupree picked up sacks lining up from three different positions and had a surprisingly big role in coverage.

Tomlin asks Steelers inside linebacker Ryan Shazier to similarly wear a number of hats. "Shoot the Gap: The Ryan Shazier Story" is a tale of a young man finding himself by attacking running plays with blinding confidence. It is breathtaking when Shazier takes over a game, like when he knocked Buffalo's No. 1 rushing attack backwards almost on his own. There aren't many humans who cross the line of scrimmage, then drop back into coverage on the same play before stealing a pass from a bewildered quarterback, like Shazier did against Matt Moore in the playoffs:

Shazier is an All-Pro waiting to happen, a player on the cusp who has yet to put it all together in one season. The same is true of so many Steelers defenders. Nose tackle Javon Hargrave was a beast down the stretch as a rookie, beating double-teams and showing surprising pass-rush savvy. Stephon Tuitt, only 24 years old like Shazier, can play inside or out depending on the formation. Tuitt was Pittsburgh's best overall defender last season, a title that 28-year-old Cameron Heyward held in 2015. (A torn pectoral muscle ended Heyward's season in Week 10 of last year.)

This trend of losing crucial players like Heyward is just one of the things Tomlin has to worry about ...

Pittsburgh's biggest obstacles

The Steelers have struggled to get all their best defenders on the field at once. Whether the group is injury-prone or unlucky, the key pieces have all missed significant time over the last two seasons. It is beyond preposterous that the most durable, most reliable Steeler on this side of the ball is James Harrison -- the last defensive remnant of the Bill Cowher era in Pittsburgh.

Harrison is a walking folk tale, a man worthy of the legacy of his larger-than-life Steelers forefathers. Now 39 years old, Harrison was the single biggest reason Pittsburgh was so tough to run against down the stretch last season. (Not counting Week 17, when Pittsburgh rested its starters, the defense held opponents under 80 yards rushing in six of its final seven games -- that included three playoff games where the Steelers gave up just 170 ground yards combined.) Harrison's performance in Pittsburgh's AFC wild-card win over Miami ranked among the best single-game efforts by any NFL defender a season ago.

Counting on Harrison to play at that level again is asking too much, so the Steelers drafted Wisconsin outside linebacker T.J. Watt in the first round. For all this unit's talent, there is some risk Pittsburgh doesn't have enough edge rushers.

The pass rush needs to excel to take pressure off an untested secondary. The team found instant, valuable snaps for 2016 rookies Artie Burns and Sean Davis a year ago. These two picks, along with 2017 third-rounder Cameron Sutton, show Tomlin putting a greater stamp on his defense. Tomlin spent his first five NFL seasons as a defensive backs coach and is looking to recapture his old magic with this group.

Davis showed toughness playing through a torn labrum and intelligence handling a variety of roles as a rookie safety. He made his biggest impact crashing down near the line of scrimmage, showing a heady feel for the game. Burns was not as raw as his reputation suggested. He competed well and has the size and athleticism to hold up if the Steelers mix in more man coverage this season. Tomlin's reliance on his zone defense came back to haunt him in Foxborough last January.

This is generally a young Steelers secondary -- with elder statesmen, like Mike Mitchell and William Gay, who make their share of mistakes. Will Pittsburgh be ready to handle the deepest Patriots receiver group yet when the teams face off on Dec. 17 or in the seemingly-inevitable AFC playoff game to follow?

The looming Patriots problem is why this Pittsburgh team may be strangely under-hyped. This 53-man roster rivals any that Tomlin has coached, yet the typically chatty Steelers fans appear to have a defeatist attitude when it comes to Belichick and Brady.

Those fans should take solace in the reality that it only takes one game to flip a one-sided rivalry; just ask Peyton Manning and the 2006 Indianapolis Colts. Dismissing this Steelers team's chance is disrespectful to Ben Roethlisberger's ability and to what Tomlin is building with this defense.

Tomlin's time

Back in 2007, Tomlin was mature and confident enough to retain Dick LeBeau to run the defense. The team responded by ranking in the top two in points allowed in four of the next five seasons, but the decision delayed Tomlin's development of his own set of Steelers defensive stars. After half a decade of regrouping on defense, Tomlin and Colbert have the recipe to make this team balanced again.

Tuitt, Heyward, Hargrave, Shazier and Dupree form the rarest of NFL assets in this free agency era: A talented, versatile group of guys who can come of age together. A third Super Bowl appearance for Tomlin is within reach, this time with a defense he molded from Day 1.

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