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Steelers Defense Faces Question Marks At Six Positions During The Offseason


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.

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About Dave Bryan

I am, I'm me. 40 something, retired and a life long Steelers fan.
  • nikgreene

    What about defensive end? I suppose this is more a long term issue, not necessarily an issue in 2013. Brett Kiesel turns 35 at the beginning of next season and likely in decline, though he seemed to have an adequate season and has a decent track record in regards to health. Is Ziggy Hood the long term solution at LDE, and wil Heyward (already entering his third season) be good enough to replace Kiesel in 2013 or 2014? Wonder if we’ll need to draft high at this position again in the next two years.

  • Cols714

    I think we need to stop pretending that Harrison won’t be back. He’s going to be back. They don’t have an adequate replacement for him.

    Same with Hampton. He played well last year after he got healthy and in shape.

  • steeltown

    I think they will address it with a high pick in 2014.. they might draft a DE this year to, but I bet its a late Rd pick

  • Kysteeler

    I think that Worilds needs his chance to start, I def think he could put up 10 sacks next year, the kid missed all preseason, and started a few games and had 5 this year. Hampton and Foote will be back next year, start until mid season and lose out to Spence and McClendon. Curtis Brown is a good nickle CB, and I think he’ll take a step up next year, Lake has helped these guys out a lot. No question with the depth of SS in this year’s draft that we won’t pick one up, and Golden will remain the back-up FS.

    All in all the Steelers to have young pieces it’s just a matter of who takes that jump next year.

  • zyzak

    I expect T’aamu to be in jail next season, isn’t that why they picked up the latest NT?
    John Mitchell needs to get Hood and Iron head to play maybe hes too old to coach up guys? When Keisel is your best lineman and Hampton is still playing they have problems
    Tomlin erred in making DEs #1 draft picks on a 3/4 def

  • nikgreene

    I suppose it’s worth noting that Keisel himself was a 7th round pick. But I don’t think you can rely on finding solid starters that late in the draft.

  • Kysteeler

    Nik, I think that Heyward def could replace Kiesel next year. Is he going to step in and have some growing pains, yes, but I think he will end up being one of out best draft picks in years on the defense.

  • steeltown

    I think its a must to re-sign Foote and Will Allen for ONE more season.. and then also draft ILB and SS this year and groom them. Obviously re-signing K.Lewis will help the CB situation.

  • Pete

    When Kiesel goes Heyward will be full time and they’ll pick up depth at some point. DE is not a pressing position of need at the moment.

  • steeltown

    Agreed. Worilds could start BUT not sure what they’ll do if Harrison returns next year, do they re-sign Worilds in 2014 anyway without battle testing him? He would be cheap at that point, most likely having no attention in FA

  • Pete

    Good analysis of where the Steelers are defensively at this moment. I can’t wait to have these question marks answered in the coming weeks. If Lewis comes back it will settle the CB position until Taylor retires and provide time for Brown to grow.

    Ryan Clark has really turned into a very good player for the Steelers. I really hope whoever they find as his eventual replacement will be as aggressive and hard hitting as Clark.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steve.duncan.77 Steve Duncan

    I think Heyward could replace Hood now and improve the line, but that brings up its own set of questions…

  • nikgreene

    I’m sure Tomlin has some input in the draft preparation and selections, but Colbert is ultimately responsible for all roster decisions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steve.duncan.77 Steve Duncan

    I think ILB is out biggest need. OLB and Safety aren’t far behind. Troy played well at the end of the year, but I wouldn’t say he got back to the form we expect from him (he seems to play worried about injuries now) and I am not sure if he ever will. He is still a top safety, but that is a sign that we need to address the position sooner rather than later. Might was well throw Free Safety in there too. I am not at all sold on Golden and we have virtually no depth at the position.

  • ed52

    No no no no no! We don’t waste a 1st round pick on a defensive guy. We had the #1 defense last year. The last two years. Defense is not our need! Our big problem is the offense. Particularly the offensive line. You didn’t listen to me last year when I wanted Kalil. My #1 draft pick this year is someone off that Alabama OL. Specifically, I like Barret Jones (the center). Just do it. I am not wrong. Save the defensive picks for later or next year…they’ll be fine. The offense is not fine…we need to fix it. Jones is quality for many years to come.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Wilkes420 Christopher Wilkes

    I’m sick of having an aggressive tackler at FS. I’d much rather have a young 4.4 speed guy that can roam sideline to sideline and make interceptions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Wilkes420 Christopher Wilkes

    Great point. It could be a situation like Keenan Lewis all over again.

  • zyzak

    No Tomlin does, its 60/40

  • Kysteeler

    I really can see Harrison returning next year unless he takes a HUGE pay cut. It’s really hard to see what you’ve got in a player unless he’s out there playing the position, you can only grow so much as a back-up. However it’s going to be an interesting off season.

  • Kysteeler

    I agree with you, the pieces are their on defense, we just need to stay healthy. Mid to late round picks should be spent on the defense right now. We can’t run the ball or score points. Say our defense drops from #1 to #10 is it really that big of a difference, the offense was something like 21. We’ve got Allen, Worilds, Spence who could be potential starters, but no depth at WR, shaky LG play, no back-up QB, and no feature back. Not to mention Heath’s injury.

  • LucasY59

    I agree the Offense has equal if not more problems than the Defense and the Bama OL proved last night they have alot of talent and skill, so if Warmack was available @ pick 17 then he has to be given pretty heavy consideration even though the Steelers picked DeCastro last year. He also fills what looks like the biggest ? on the O-line @ LG. The last thing they need is a Center, but Jones looks to have position flexability and could be a good G as well. Kalil was NEVER a consideration last year because they didnt have a top 5 pick.

  • LucasY59

    The DEs were picked at ther very end of the 1st round when all the real big talent 1st rounders were already taken, they seemed like decent value picks at the time of the draft, I agree they havent played as well as you would hope from a 1st rounder, but are not the biggest problems/mistakes the Steelers have.

  • mghjr88

    I personally have really enjoyed and appreciated Ryan Clark’s aggressive play at free safety over the years.

    Would it be nice to have a “4.4 speed guy that can roam sideline to sideline”? Indeed, but I would also hope that he is an aggressive and sure tackler.

    I believe the Steelers have been fortunate to have the duo of Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark at strong and free safety. Clark isn’t the playmaker Polamalu is and no one will mistake him for a ball hawk, but he’s still been able to come down with 8 interceptions over the last 4 seasons and was without a doubt one of the Steelers top performers this season.

  • ed52

    The Vikings had the third (or fourth) pick last year but…IMHO…we should’ve sold the farm to get Kalil. 1st round pick and Mike Wallace, 1st and 2nd round picks…etc. The point is there was a deal to be made there and I would’ve made it. Kalil is one of those that started from day 1. AP comes within a whisker of breaking the rushing record. Coincidence? I don’t believe in coincidences.

  • Maurice_hill_district

    I hate to say it but u are right on that. I dunno why the thumsdowns on that, bcaus those points actually make sense.

  • Maurice_hill_district

    U are right on that, but in hindsight we culda got what we got from Zig & Heywood with 7th rd guys or undrafted guys.

  • http://www.facebook.com/james.stanford.3950 James Stanford

    We need a solid qb to come in and push Ben. No backup

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