The Pittsburgh Steelers' failure to make the postseason the past two seasons largely can be blamed on a defense that has looked old and slow at critical moments. Despite the team's attempts to add young, talented defenders in prior drafts, the patchwork unit didn't mesh in 2013, falling short of the lofty standards set in a city that was once home to the Steel Curtain.
The team went back to the defensive well again this offseason, adding a handful of youthful free agents before spending five of its nine picks -- including the first two -- on defensive players. Skeptics wonder if defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will be able to successfully incorporate a number of youngsters into his exotic scheme, but I see a unit poised to wreak havoc on opponents behind a revamped defensive line, an energetic linebacking corps and an emerging superstar at safety.
Given some time to assess the tape and potential of the newcomers, I've come up with several reasons for the rest of the AFC North to fear what's being constructed in Pittsburgh:
1) The defensive line is better outfitted to win in the trenches.
Until their recent step backward, the Steelers had consistently been one of the NFL's top defensive teams, thanks to the unheralded dominance of a front line that owned the point of attack. With five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton and a pair of blue-collar defensive ends in Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith leading the way, the Steelers were nearly impossible to run on. The unit specialized in limiting positive yards on the ground, with Hampton spearheading the charge; his imposing size-strength combination overwhelmed opponents in the middle.
In his prime, Hampton was listed at 6-foot-1, 320 pounds -- and he controlled the point of attack as the quintessential two-gap nose tackle, freeing the Steelers' linebackers to run and chase without obstruction. It's surely no coincidence that, with Hampton no longer in the lineup in 2013, the team allowed more than 100 rushing yards per game (115.6) for the first time since 2003.
It was imperative for the Steelers to retool their nose tackle spot in the offseason if they wanted to keep opponents from jamming the ball down their throats in 2014. That's why the team made a concerted effort to secure Cam Thomas in free agency. The fifth-year pro is a ferocious player with the size (6-4, 330), strength and athleticism to thrive as a two-gap player. He capably holds his own against double-teams while also flashing the ability to split multiple blockers and create penetration. With his underrated athleticism, Thomas will not only upgrade the Steelers' nose tackle spot; he also can be used at defensive end (or defensive tackle in sub-packages) on occasion.
The Steelers further bolstered the defensive line with the selections of Stephon Tuitt and Daniel McCullers in the draft. Both are intriguing talents with the size (Tuitt is 6-5, 304; McCullers 6-7, 352), strength and explosiveness to create chaos at the point of attack. Tuitt, in particular, is an ideal five-technique in the mold of Richard Seymour. He possesses the first-step quickness and burst to win with finesse on slants and stunts, and he's also powerful enough to squarely take on blockers to plug holes at the line of scrimmage. This is critical in a gap-controlled defense that places a premium on putting big bodies in holes to eliminate running room.
McCullers, a sixth-round pick, is the wild card to watch. The Tennessee standout has imposing physical tools, but he never quite put it all together as a collegian. If he can give the Steelers solid contributions as a run-stopper at the pivot, McCullers will improve the team's run defense and create more pass-rush opportunities by forcing long-yardage situations.
2) The linebackers' collective speed and athleticism will create chaos.
Linebackers are the backbone of LeBeau's zone-blitz scheme. The wily defensive wizard routinely places his second-level defenders in playmaking positions to create opportunities for the defense; this has been his trademark since he developed the scheme nearly 20 years ago. Recently, however, the Steelers' defense has lost some of its bite, with key players beginning to show signs of age- and injury-related decline. As a result, the Steelers have been forced to break in a host of youngsters at prime spots over the past few seasons. Given the growing pains that naturally occur with young players on the field, it's not surprising the unit's sack production has dipped significantly, dropping from 48 in 2010 to 35 in 2011, 37 in 2012 and 34 in 2013. Numbers like those don't cut it in the AFC.
Harrison: Power rankings
However, that should change in 2014, with Jarvis Jones, Jason Worilds and Lawrence Timmons finally comfortable in their roles as disruptive playmakers. In fact, I fully expect LeBeau to expand his playbook so that it features more exotic blitzes and pressures designed to help his hunters reach the quarterback; he'll attempt to tap into the athleticism and versatility of the core to generate pressure from all angles. Here's how I envision him taking advantage of his four presumed starters:
The eighth-year pro is one of the most versatile defenders in the NFL. Timmons, who shifted positions in the NFL after thriving as an outside linebacker with extensive pass-rush responsibilities at Florida State, is that rare inside linebacker with exceptional blitz skills. LeBeau makes the most of those talents by frequently using him on Double A-gap or Cross A-gap blitzes in the middle. By attacking the A-gaps with inside linebackers, LeBeau is able to exploit pass protections that are overstretched to take away the outside rushers.
The misdirection of the blitz creates confusion at the line of scrimmage, leading to a sack and a 12-yard loss:
Given Timmons' effectiveness attacking on blitzes between the tackles, the Steelers can routinely add five and six defenders to the rush to destroy the timing of the opponent's passing game.
The fifth-year pro had a breakout campaign in 2013 as James Harrison's replacement. Worilds finished with eight sacks, two forced fumbles and a bunch of pressures while serving as the Steelers' designated rusher off the edge. He displays explosive first-step quickness and has a nasty swipe move that allows him to blow past blockers. He complements those moves with a terrific tomahawk chop that pries the ball loose from unsuspecting quarterbacks in the pocket. LeBeau can use the threat of Worilds coming off the edge to confuse quarterbacks at the line, leading to blown pass-protection calls and unblocked defenders.
At the snap, the Steelers send five rushers, with six defenders dropping into coverage in a three-deep, three-under zone-blitz concept. Brady is confused by the deception, resulting in a 2-yard loss on a coverage sack:
Jones was picked 17th overall in the 2013 NFL Draft to upgrade the Steelers' pass rush, but he struggled to find his way as a rookie. He finished the season with only one sack and didn't deliver the disruptive impact that many expected after watching him dominate the SEC for two seasons at Georgia. That disappointment certainly lingers in the minds of coaches and team officials. Still, I've been taught that most players make their biggest developmental gains between their first and second seasons. Thus, it's plausible to think Jones could yet emerge as the force everyone thought he'd be after undergoing a full offseason of work under the watchful eyes of the Steelers' coaching staff.
I can envision Jones playing as the left outside linebacker in base and nickel packages. He thrived in that role as a collegian, and LeBeau likely will want to keep him comfortable, to allow him to play free and fast off the edges. Jones' rookie sack total aside, he clearly has the speed and quickness to be an impact playmaker.
Shazier is penciled in at one of the Steelers' inside linebacker spots, but anyone who has studied the former Ohio State standout understands his athleticism and versatility as a second-level defender. The 15th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft thrived in a multi-faceted role with the Buckeyes, and I expect he'll be a dynamic weapon in LeBeau's scheme. I believe Shazier and Timmons could be interchangeable pieces as blitz/cover guys. Shazier's collegiate background as a hybrid outside linebacker is eerily similar to Timmons', which makes the rookie an ideal candidate to play a variety of roles in the Steelers' zone-blitz scheme. If he is able to handle the complexities of the Steelers' scheme, Shazier will give Pittsburgh another dynamic weapon to create chaos in the middle of the field.
3) Mike Mitchell will be the "new" Troy Polamalu.
I know it's almost blasphemous to dub a safety Troy Polamalu-like in Pittsburgh, but the Steelers' marquee free agency pick-up is ideally suited to be the designated playmaker in LeBeau's scheme. The sixth-year pro grew into a Pro Bowl-caliber defender during his one season with the Carolina Panthers, registering 66 tackles, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and four interceptions in 2013. Those numbers are on par with the kind of production Polamalu used to deliver as the centerpiece of the Steelers' defense during his prime.
Consider the following series of screengrabs, taken from the Panthers' Week 10 win over the San Francisco 49ers last season, which shows Mitchell coming on a safety blitz through the B-gap. This is a simple bullets zone-dog with a five-man rush and six defenders in coverage (three-under, three-deep):
Colin Kaepernick fails to anticipate the blitz and doesn't make the necessary protection adjustment to keep Mitchell from running through the B-gap unblocked for an easy sack:
LeBeau shouldn't have to revamp his game plans or place players in uncomfortable positions on the field. In fact, the threat of Mitchell or Polamalu blitzing from the back end could alter how quarterbacks attack the Steelers, allowing LeBeau to use a variety of disguises to create a significant schematic advantage on game day.