Bouchette Doesn’t See Much Improvement From Steelers Defense In 2014

By Jeremy Hritz

Ed Bouchette wrote Sunday in the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette that the Steelers have an exhausting to-do list to improve the defense this offseason, and he forecasts that the unit may be even more unsettled next year than they were in 2013.

Bouchette addresses the sweeping changes that may be coming in the secondary, and the possibility of both Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark moving on and the subsequent loss of leadership that would create. He also addresses the impending discussions about pay cuts for Polamalu and Ike Taylor, and that even if they return at discounted costs, and even if additions are made, “No matter what they do, however, it is difficult to see their 2014 defense playing much better than their 2013 version.”

This is a strong assertion by Bouchette, and based on the below-the-line play from the defense in 2013, it is difficult to argue against another potentially mediocre defensive performance in 2014. However, the variable in this argument will again be the development of the younger defenders.

Let’s assume for a moment the following starting line-up on defense in 2014:

LE – Cameron Heyward

NT – Steve McLendon

RE – Ziggy Hood

ROLB – Jarvis Jones

RILB – Lawrence Timmons

LILB – Vince Williams

LOLB – Jason Worilds

CB – Cortez Allen

CB – Ike Taylor

FS – Shamarko Thomas

SS – Troy Polamalu

This past season, the Steelers finally enjoyed a return on investment in Heyward and Worilds, as they performed well. Additionally, Timmons, Taylor, and Polamalu have a wealth of experience and have proven what they can bring to the defense, and despite the decline of Taylor and Polamalu, they are both still slightly above-average players.

With that in mind, that leaves six other positions manned by players that still have not yet validated their ability to be standout defenders. Let’s take a look at each of those players and consider what type of performance we can expect next season.

Steve McLendon: While many are critical of McLendon’s performance from 2013, as Dave Bryan pointed out, the Steelers defense was stout up the middle with McLendon in the game. This was McLendon’s first year as a starter, and there is reason for optimism that he will progress even more next season.

Ziggy Hood: This assumes that the Steelers will resign Hood, who though he has not been a world-beater run defender, he has served a purpose, and he understands the 3-4 defensive scheme. While Hood will never be dominant, he is a dependable player that could return simply for that reason. Could this be a position that the Steelers address in free agency? Or could they consider shifting the defensive line around by putting Al Woods at nose and moving McLendon to right end?

Jarvis Jones: To whom much is given, much is expected, and the expectations for Jones in 2014 are going to extraordinarily high, so much so that if he doesn’t increase his production dramatically, he will be the target of an assault of criticism, and rightly so. The Steelers have not had pressure from their outside linebackers over the last few seasons, and if Jones can emerge, many of the weaknesses in the secondary can be masked.

Vince Williams: We will assume that Williams starts inside, and that Larry Foote is not resigned. If that is the case, how much development in coverage can Williams make? Is he even capable of being effective in coverage? This is another position that the Steelers could potentially address in free agency if they decide to be un-Steeler like, but it may be necessary should Williams not have what it takes and if Sean Spence’s career is over.

Cortez Allen: The play of Allen this season was uneven, though he did “splash” on occasion, specifically in the Green Bay game with his interception return for a touchdown. 2014 will be Allen’s fourth season, and maybe similarly to Worilds in his fourth season, he will elevate his play to be a force at corner.

Shamarko Thomas: Thomas is inexperienced, and it is uncertain what he will be able to contribute in his first year as a starter. While he can no doubt deliver punishing hits and provide quality run support, he will have to answer questions through his play about his ability in coverage. His potential contributions next year are a question mark.

When looking closely at this projected starting line-up on defense, it is easy to understand where Bouchette’s concerns originate, and we have seen what the outcome can be when younger, inexperienced players are counted on to play well. Considering the inexperience of several projected defensive starters and the potential departure of Polamalu and Taylor, the Steelers may be forced to take a hard look at available free agents at key defensive positions.

This will undoubtedly be an offseason of change.

  • joed32

    Every player eventually gets to be too old and a young player has to replace him. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, sometimes a “star” is born and sometimes they don’t pan out. I think the defense may be better with some young blood.

  • DoctorNoah

    Good coaching is what turns young players with high ceilings into stars. And great coaching is what allows a mixed bag of players function more effectively than the sum of their parts – c.f. Belichick’s recent defenses. I’d like to see our coaching do that.

    There is no reason a rookie can’t start in our defense, and that was shown this year. Jarvis Jones is going to have to put on 15-20lbs of muscle to play OLB in this league. He looks downright scrawny compared to Worilds and Woodley, and compared to a 4-3 end he’s tiny. I’m hopeful for Shamarko – he’s got the toolset, and he couldn’t be more out of position than Clark and Troy were in the beginning of the season.

    I think Troy has a lot left in the tank, btw, as does Ike.

  • Luke Shabro

    If Troy and Ike are gone you definitely lose leadership and experience in the secondary. I thought Ryan Clark has been awesome for years but this year he was atrocious and you can’t say he’ll be missed when he was continually blowing assignments all year

  • steeltown

    Agreed.. both will be back at a reduced rate IMO

  • steeltown

    There’s no reason to think this Defense wont improve next year, if Cortez can stay healthy and start playing every snap, Shamarko replaces Clark, Worilds is retained and Vince and Jones take a step forward in their 2nd seasons this Defense could be very much improved. Obviously another aspect will be infusing another good group of rookie draft picks.

    Two biggest questions/issues: Do Ike and Troy play at a reduced rate to help the Team..and is Worilds retained?

  • Kevin artis

    The key is having a good mixture of young and old players. You can’t let all your experience out the door. You know it takes a while to learn Lebeau’s systems so we have to be very careful who we let walk and who we keep.

  • WilliamSekinger

    I have faith that a Lebeau led defense can improve over 2013 no matter who’s playing. They were awful this past season. I would not be as confident if Lebeau doesn’t return however.

  • Jollyrob68

    Troy may not want to td ake a paycut. He said he’d honor his contract. I hope they td all ro him about saving money for the team.
    The best way to keep both sides happy is reduce pay but extend him 1 yr and guarantee him he’ll get his 7 million.

  • Jollyrob68

    Ike will but Troy may not.

  • Jollyrob68

    Then perhaps its time to upgrade & change the system. Promote Keith Butler before he leaves with Whiz.

  • JT

    I don’t expect much improvement in his reporting, either.

  • JT

    Dave has shown they can get under without help from Troy. But it would be nice, of course.

  • Callentown

    I agree. However, I’m not as keen on Cortez. I think he’s good, not great. Pittsburgh needs another cover corner to take over as the #1 spot. Ike can’t do it consistently anymore (although had a nice first half against good WR’s).

    If Sean Spence can come back – WOW, what a boon that would be for the team. Otherwise, I think they need help at ILB.

  • Callentown

    Move Mr. LeBeau to Assistant HC and Butler in as D-Coordinator.

    We need a new #1 CB as Ike is having trouble covering the best on the other team. Cortez is good, not great. Gay had a better year IMO.

    Sign Troy and Ike at lower contracts if possible.

    Move McClendon to DE in place of Ziggy who is a back-up in this league with Al Woods at NT.

    Draft a D-lineman, CB and ILB high in the draft.

    Go Steelers in 2014!!

  • Kenneth Wilt

    First, let me say initially that I think Bouchette is an idiot.

    Second, I don’t agree with his assessment. IMO, the reason this D has issues boils down to a few factors.

    1. First year starting NT….he will and should improve.
    2. First year rookie starting OLB…he will and should improve
    3. First year rookie starting ILB….he will and should improve
    4. Old and slow FS

    Clark IMO was our weak link this past year. He misplayed a number of plays which went for big gains. The first 3 mentioned above should get better. C. Allen should get better. Heyward should get better or at least have a larger impact as he starts in every game. McLendon, Williams, Garvin, and J. Jones should all get better.

    Adding some new pieces from the draft who will contribute in small ways and I see no reason why this defense cannot improve some. I’m not saying #1 defense type improvement, but if we were 15th this year, I would expect maybe 10th next year. THAT I truly believe is possible.

  • StrengthOfVictory

    Ed Douchette is no “insider,” and he’s woefully tiring when he drums up all the doom and gloom. Whatever gets people to read, eh? Not saying the Steelers don’t have holes to fill, but free agency is still a ways off, no contracts have been dealt with yet, and the draft is still four months away.

  • srdan

    The defense is not a money issue. In the top five defenses are NO and GB, two teams that pay their QB more than we do.

    One thing these teams get is production from young players. With todays salary cap, you almost have to do this to be productive. Dick Lebeau’s defense may need to give players time to learn it. But we are starting to run into the K. Lewis and J. Worldis situations. Guys coming off rookie contrats coming on late in that contract and we can’t afford them. GB and NO get production from draft picks. Maybe it’s time that we simplify the defense to allow for more rooks to play like they did this year. Who knows,the likes of Ta’amu and others may still be around if this adjustment were made.

  • David Edward

    For starters, hopefully they don’t make the commitment to Hood by resigning him to a long-term deal. He was poor in run support and offers minimal pass rush as a 34 DE. He was only starting towards the end of this year due to injury to Keisel. In 5 years, he’s shown his upside is mediocrity. The better move would be to sign Woods and either play him there or at NT and move McLendon outside. If not that, then another better move would be to draft a DE like Tuitt who is a better fit for the 34.
    In the secondary, Ike and Allen at CB has the potential to be pretty bad. If Ike loses another step he may be absolutely abused on the outside, and while Cortez has a chance to be good, he needs to take a major step forward and not play soft coverage and let guys beat him underneath. I think a 1st or 2nd round CB is a must this year, for the good and welfare of the future even if it’s rough in ’14. I like Shamarko a lot, but not sure he’s ready to start at FS. He really didn’t play there this year. I see him more as Troy’s replacement at SS, but he does have the tools to play FS if needed…would have to learn on the fly though.

  • CrazyTerry

    If Vince Williams is starting, this team is in trouble. He is fine as a backup or if he is a starter on a front 7 populated with top notch players.
    To remake this D, the front office needs to show some guts.
    Get rid of Woodley.
    Get rid of Ike.
    Get rid of Ryan Clark.
    Get Troy to take some kind of a cut (thanks to that pro bowl selection, Steelers are stuck with overpaying him and my hopes that they could get away with paying him 4M or so is over.
    If you gotta trade Pouncey for either a good draft pick or maybe an impact D player(Maybe Miami would overpay for Pouncey?), do it. We can sign Velasco and Cody Wallace to replace Pouncey and the dropoff will be offset by the upgrade in our D.
    Even with Woodley’s dead cap money, there should enough savings here to sign Wordlis or another good free agent. Otherwise, look hard and see if there is a valuable free agent we can get to fill one of the OLB spots or DL spots. And tell our D coaches to get that new guy integrated the way K Lewis was quickly integrated in New Orleans. I am tired of Lebeau’s system. Worked great for us and he is deservedly in the HOF, but this is crazy strategy in the cap age.

  • CrazyTerry

    I agtree.I am sick of this excuse. K Lewis learned Rob Ryan’s system pretty fast, didn’t he.

  • CrazyTerry

    If Troy wants 10M, maybe he should start by not getting fooled by good QBs in pass coverage so often. He isstill one of our best players on D, but that’s grading him on a curve. he is forcing more fumbles because they use him in high risk situations near LOS. But he also lets a lot of big plays go by too. Still a good safety, but worth that huge salary next year?>>>

  • CrazyTerry

    All our veteran DBs couldn’t even remember their assignments in the Detroit first half and nearly blew that game for us. Same in the Miami game where a mediocre offense put up major points. Their leadership is not making up for some awful pass coverage.

  • CrazyTerry

    I agree. it’s time to see if Butler is like Ray Horton and can use Lebeau’s teachings to forge a new identity on D. We need some pressure up the middle. One thing that does not get emphasized enough in a lebeau D is disruption of those quick passesup the middle. You need more players who can disrupt passing lanes. Except heyward,, Keisel(and supposedly Jarvis) , the others are not good at batting down passes.

  • srdan

    Great point on Lebeau.

    I don’t agree on getting rid of Ike. He is not what he used to be, but still a servicable number 2 corner. His salary is too high, I’ll agree there.

    Let’s not ask for our players to excel and make the probowl, and then not pay them. It doesn’t work that way. Troy was always susceptible to the mannings and bradys, it’s not an age thing. It’s his style of play.

    Good idea with pouncey. I am tired of his injuries. It sucks, but it’s a reality. I would rather move forward with wallace since velasco had a severe injury. Our line is hurt every year, we can’t keep bringing back hurt players and hope for them not to get the same result. Benjamin Franklin said something about that.

  • srdan

    The reality of it is that we will lose those two over the next two years one way or another. That leadership will be replaced. It would be a lot to replace in one year.

  • srdan

    I think jarvis will come back bigger, much bigger. What worries me is htat he already hit his grown man strength spur since he is older.

    I think that “scrawny” 3/4 LBs are not out of the norm anymore(aldon, chandler). Speed and countermoves is where it’s at. Bigger LBs are good against the run, but it’s a throwing league.

  • srdan

    I like V. Williams for two reasons. He was thrown into the fire and didn’t back down and he is fiery. He provides a roll for our team. I don’t know if he can become an every down backer, but I’m pulling for him.

    I get that he is not that great in coverage, but that is something that can be learned. Playing in our 3/4 base next to timmons this can be masked if Vince can get pressure. He needs to imporve his pass rushing skills. Even if he is a 2down backer, with the hurry up offenses he will be cought on the field. They ahve to be able to rely on him to either rush the passer, or cover. He had 0 sacks.

  • JT

    Agreed on Ike. The problem this year was Ryan Clark/Will Allen. You can’t stick Ike out there one on one and tell him he has help over the top, and be mad when the help isn’t there for him. He got hung out to dry a lot. He still shutdown AJ Green. No, he’s not Rod Woodson, but he’s a fighter.

    I also think it’s wrong to reach in Troys pocket. If he offers, great. But don’t force it. He is asked to do so much and was asked to cover so many weakness this season. Find me another safety willing to line up all over the field for his team like Troy does.

    And Idk how I feel about Pouncey. If he doesn’t get taken out by DD, I don’t think we’re having the injury conversation. However, how crucial is a pro bowl center to the success of a team? If we get a good trade I guess I’d be happy. But I’m not about to dump a Pro Bowler for two scrap-heap journeymen.

  • pittsburghjoe

    Ed has a point and with that said, you can make a strong point addressing defense in the first 2 rounds and getting a WR in round 3. The draft is loaded at WR and they should have no problem getting a good WR in the 3rd.

  • Don

    I don’t disagree with your larger point, however, GB is not a top 5 defense. While they were #8 in yards allowed, they were #24 in points against. And if you look at advanced stats, Football Outsiders ranked them #31.

  • Richard Edlin

    I’d like to see Cortez resigned to a 2 year contract in the off-season, as I’m worried that Ike comes back for one more year and then we lose both starting corners for 2015.

  • Richard Edlin

    Cortez isn’t a #1 at present but we should be planning for 2015 in this off-season. Whether or not he is a #1 cornerback-worthy after 2014, if Ike plays next year we need to retain him because I can’t see that Ike’s got two yeras left.

    If Ike leaves the team this year, it’s safer to let Cortez see out his contract and take the risk that we’ll need to pay him … we don’t want to lose both in the same year.

  • CrazyTerry

    We are not reaching into Troy’s pocket. A player’s worth is measured by his signing bonus. Troy got rewarded well for that. There is reason why players front load their contacts as much as they can in the NFL. It really boils down to whether another team is willing to pay Troy 8M plus. Steelers did not honor Harrison’s contract and quite frankly, he was the only OLB who made some plays at the end of the prior season. Still it came down to other teams willing to pay Harrison and Steelers offered more than any other team initially. That’s all they owe a player.
    I disagree that Troy hasn’t declined. There were at least 2 or 3 INTs he would have easily made in the past that he couldn’t make this year. Sure, he was used all over the field and that actually hurt the D evne if it provided for some fun moments to watch. He also didn’t make some tckles because he was too busy stripping the ball which is fine but that is reflected in his increased fumble numbers but at the same time, his mistakes were too many. I just don’t see how he was even above average in pass coverage. Take the Miami game. He made a great pick 6, but then he dropped a very easy pick 6 and then was one of the two responsible for the losing TD. A solid safety would make that first pick 6, probably not make the second pick 6 , and he would wrap up Clay. I think Troy really started to get more solid at the end of the season. Still , if a great like Ed Reed was forced to reduce his demands, I don’t see why Troy shouldn’t agree to a minor paycut.

  • CrazyTerry

    Ike can still cover. But here is where coordinators are slowly realizing the wisdom in targeting Ike on early downs. Ike’s pass D is more useful on a 3rd down which can kill a drive. But on early downs, a QB should target Ike more than Allen if neither is being shutdown, because there is no risk in Ike INTing that pass. An incomplete on an early down is not desirable, but is not that bad either. This can give a QB more confidence when throwing if he can shake off the incompletes.

  • Josh Knepshield

    How is Ike a slightly above average player? He was one of the worst CBs in the NFL last season. Pro football focus says he was the 5th WORST corner in all of football. Cut him and play Cortez across from Gay. 7 million for his services? Lol. No. I’m sick of him allow a first down, clap his hands together in frustration, then repeat and repeat.

  • Brendon Glad

    Dbs with ball skills dbs with ball skills dbs with ball skills. That means reading, breaking, AND catching. I dont care if they are 5’8″ or 6’3″.

  • ATL96STEELER

    I think it’s pretty much a no brainer to think the Steelers are more than one player away from rebuilding the DEF…Last year we had 3 slow players in the back 4, with Ike & Troy still u/c…I love those guys, they were well paid for a job well done…time to go younger and cheaper…the record will be what it will be.

    But imo to help carry the DEF, for a year or so, the OFC needs that one player…an impact player with size is on the edge.

  • MC

    There definitely is a chance this defense will improve but it’s safe to say that the picks for the defensive side of the ball in the upcoming draft need to be money.