The 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers defense ranked 9th against the pass, 21st against the run and 13th overall in the NFL. Looking from the outside one may think they had a pretty good year. However, anyone who has followed the Steelers and bleeds black and gold knows those rankings are far from the norm in this town. Digging deeper into the stats reveals something much more troubling. They finished tied for 18th in takeaways (14 INT’s/10 Fumble recoveries) and tied for 25th in sacks with 34. Pressure leads to sacks. Pressure leads to turnovers. This leads to the most pressing question surrounding the Steelers defense, where has all the pressure gone? The 2014 team is built with speed, and getting after the quarterback is the main avenue to success in a Dick LeBeau defense. We will see a lot of new faces on the defensive side of the ball this year, so let’s start with where the most change will occur, the men up front.
Defensive Line
Brett Keisel is no longer on the roster and Evander “Ziggy” Hood is preparing for his first training camp with the Jacksonville Jaguars. In their place the Steelers brought in Cam Thomas, originally a nose tackle who can play defensive end from the San Diego Chargers, and they drafted Stephon Tuitt in the second round out of Notre Dame. Tuitt is the more athletic and physically capable of the two, but he is a rookie. Here’s a trivia question for you. In Dick LeBeau’s storied coaching career, how many rookies have started for his defense? Before you start trying to name names, I’ll tell you the number is zero. That is all about to change in 2014. With Cameron Heyward already penciled in at one end spot, the battle for the other is between Tuitt and Thomas. I would be shocked if Tuitt doesn’t only win this battle, but wins it running away. He is too special of a player, baring an injury, to be on the bench when the season starts. Also, don’t count out Da Beard coming back onto the roster at some point.
With the defensive end battle settled, the defensive tackle fight will come down to Steve McLendon and Cam Thomas. With these two guys fighting for a starting spot, let me be the first to say, Casey Hampton, we miss you. This is a very interesting contest between the two, given the run stopping woes of 2013. I see the McLendon holding off Thomas to start the season, but that could all change in a hurry if he doesn’t clog up the middle so the linebackers can roam free to make plays. Keep your eye on this battle all season, it could be something we’re talking about for months to come.
This is a position the front office has focused on in the past two drafts. Jarvis Jones, drafted in the first round in 2013 for the outside and Ryan Shazier was drafted in the first round this past May to roam the inside. The two outside linebacker spots are set. Jones and Jason Worilds were penciled in as soon as the team released Lamarr Woodley. The only battle here is at inside backer, but it still isn’t much of a competition. Lawrence Timmons will be, without question, the main cog that makes the defense run. The other side, however, is where the question may lie. Shazier will be battling the starter from 2013, Vince Williams. Williams did a decent job last season but he cannot physically compete with Shazier, who comes in and should be the fastest player on defense from day one. That says a lot about his skill set. If he ever gets out of position, he is faster than most receivers and tight ends in the league. Unless something very strange happens, not only will LeBeau have one rookie starter when the season begins, but two. Shazier and Timmons will be running wild in the middle of the defense. Do I see a rookie of the year? That may be a stretch but it most certainly wouldn’t be a surprise.
Ike Taylor, to the displeasure of many Steeler fans, will be the top corner starting the season. There is no question he had a bad year in 2013. Was it a fluke or is father time catching up with him? Only time will tell, but to be blunt he has to be better for the defense to succeed this season. The other corner spot opposite Taylor is up for grabs with William Gay and Cortez Allen fighting for the job. Gay has shown flashes in his career but they have come too few and far between. Allen is four years younger and much quicker than Gay but the experience factor is in Gay’s favor. Being the NFL is now a passing league, it really isn’t more than a competition to see who will cover the slot as the nickel back in most packages. However, I see the Steelers sticking with the elder statesman for the starter in base packages and going with Gay.
Safety really isn’t much of a competition either. Ryan Clark’s days in Pittsburgh are done and Mike Mitchell was brought in from last year’s top rated pass defense in Carolina to replace him. Some are saying Mitchell will fight with returner Shamarko Thomas for the starting role across from mainstay Troy Polamalu. I just don’t see that happening. Mitchell was brought in to start for this team. He is more athletic, quicker and more physical than Thomas, which is what the Steelers love about him. Unless there is an injury, Thomas could play like Donnie Shell in camp and the preseason and still wind up as the top backup to both Mitchell and Polamalu.
Defensive Outlook
This year’s defense is set to be much younger and faster than in years past. Dick LeBeau is going away from his comfort zone and will start two rookies, Tuitt and Shazier, in two very important defensive positions. Youth and speed are just what this team needed to become more of a force in today’s NFL, and that’s exactly what they tried to bring in this offseason. However, there are two main questions facing this team as training camp looms just a few days away, and they are very closely related. First, can they get pressure on the quarterback? Pressure leads to sacks, turnovers and a shaky passing game. It leads to poor decision making from the opposing quarterback. This leads to the next big question for the defense. Can the unproven secondary be better than they were last year? If the men up front do their job and get after the opposing quarterbacks, the only answer is yes. If not, we may be in for another long season where scoring 30 points a game won’t guarantee a win. For the 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers defense, the key word is pressure. That’s not just the key word on the field, but off it as well. If they don’t get pressure on Sundays, many players and coaches could be feeling a great deal of it as the season progresses.

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