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.