On Monday we looked at the five question marks the Pittsburgh Steelers have on offense heading into the offseason and today we will look at the questions that will need to be answered on the defensive side of the ball by the time the team arrives for in Latrobe for training camp.
Right Outside Linebacker – Will James Harrison be kept or won\’t he? Harrison said after the season ended that he is open to having his contract restructured so we should know within a matter of 10 weeks whether or not the Steelers will be able to retain the former Defensive Player of the Year. Should Harrison wind up being a cap casualty then Jason Worilds would finally become a starter in his final year under contract. Worilds played just over 430 snaps, mostly on the left side, last season while LaMarr Woodley was sidelined with injuries and tallied 26 total tackles to go along with 5 sacks. The Steelers will still likely address this position early on in the draft for the future, but the starter in 2012 will be either Harrison or Worilds. We just don\’t know which one it will be right now.
Nose Tackle – Casey Hampton, an unrestricted free agent, thinks he still has a couple of seasons left in him and intends on playing somewhere in 2013. The only way that he would return next season is if he fails to get good money elsewhere. The Steelers would likely welcome him back with a one-year contract for the minimum but have to plan like he is not coming back. Should Hampton not return, Steve McLendon, who will be tendered as a restricted free agent, will slide into the starting spot. McLendon played well in his 130 plus snaps last season and has been groomed several years now by defensive line coach John Mitchell, who lavished McLendon with praise last April. Behind McLendon sits the troubled 2012 fourth-round draft pick Alameda Ta\’amu, who was signed back to the 53 man roster from the practice squad during the final week of the regular season. To push Ta\’amu next season the Steelers also claimed rookie nose tackle Hebron Fangupo off waivers from the Seattle Seahawks during the final week of the season.
Strong Inside Linebacker – Larry Foote is unrestricted but open to returning in 2013 on a reduced salary. Should Foote not return for one last season the Steelers might have a real conundrum on their hands. Would they dare shift Lawrence Timmons over from his play-making position on the weak-side to handle the strong-side role and call the defense? If they don\’t choose to go that route then it would be either Stevenson Sylvester or Sean Spence that would most likely be asked to fill that role. Sylvester played one meaningless snap in 2012 on defense and has played a total of 75 since being drafted in the fifth round of the 2010 draft. Talk about a question mark. Spence, the Steelers third-round draft pick last April, missed his rookie season thanks to a serious knee injury suffered in the preseason. Even if he is healthy and ready to go you need to keep in mind that linebacker coach Keith Butler termed him a weak-side MACK prospect who needs to be covered up after he was drafted. Brandon Johnson, who the Steelers signed late in training camp last year, played all of 2 snaps last season and will be unrestricted. Johnson is mostly regarded as a special teams contributor, however, and not really a legitimate option to fill the shoes of Foote should he not return. Look for the Steelers to address this position early on in the draft, but there is no way that a rookie starts for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau on defense unless its an emergency.
Left Outside Cornerback – Keenan Lewis had a phenomenal season in 2012 and will likely be the Steelers highest priority unrestricted free agent to get re-signed this offseason. Lewis says he wants to return and hopefully something gets done. Should Lewis decide to ride off into the sunset for bigger dollars then Cortez Allen will be asked to assume the starting spot opposite Ike Taylor. It will be either Lewis or Allen manning that spot, but we must sit and wait until we find out which one it will be.
Nickel Cornerback – This uncertainty ties into the left outside cornerback uncertainty above. Should Lewis leave and Allen slide into the starting role, then which of the remaining young cornerbacks plays in the nickel package? The team certainly hasn\’t given up yet on 2011 third-round draft pick Curtis Brown, but he really needs to have a jump year in 2013 should Lewis move on to green pastures. Behind Brown sits projects in the form of DeMarcus Van Dyke and Josh Victorian. Robert Golden, who is most likely being groomed to take over the free safety spot once Ryan Clark hangs them up, also saw limited time in the slot last season due to all of the injuries as well. If Lewis is re-signed, then this positional question mark becomes a non-issue.
Backup Strong Safety – Starter Troy Polamalu returned back to form late last season after missing most of it with a calf injury. The Steelers first tried Ryan Mundy at the strong safety spot unsuccessfully with Polamalu out before finally settling on veteran Will Allen. Allen played well when given the opportunity, but obviously will never be confused for Polamalu. Both Mundy and Allen are unrestricted free agents this offseason, but neither will be sought after by teams in free agency. The Steelers will most certainly look to draft the heir apparent to Polamalu in April, but will need a reliable backup until said rookie gets up to speed. Allen looks like he would be the obvious choice to bring back on a one-year qualifying contract that comes with a reduced salary cap hit, but until that happens, the question mark will remain.