To the average NFL fan, it wasn’t hard to watch a Pittsburgh Steelers game and not take notice how much the tables have turned from the Steelers “of old.” Since as long as I can remember, the Steelers were predicated on tenacious defenses, ranging from the famed Steel Curtain defenses of the 70’s all the way to James Harrison’s game-changing 100-yard interception return for a touchdown before halftime of Super Bowl XLIII.
When teams played Pittsburgh, they knew a trip to the ice tub was a definite, and getting up out of bed the morning after would be a painful experience. From vicious knockout hits rendering concussions to Joey Porter trying to walk on the Baltimore Ravens team bus and fight Ray Lewis, the Steelers were a team that nobody wanted to face. They were based off intimidation and fear, and the play on the field spoke for itself. It is no more. There isn’t one player on the current defense that scares anybody. True, in his prime James Harrison was a one-man wrecking crew, and even at 37, still effective, but he’s not the player he was once was.
Now, the Steelers are known more for their high-flying offense led by their modern day version of the triplets, in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown. In 2014, pretty much every single offensive passing, rushing and receiving category was reset by these three, and with the arrow pointing nowhere but up, who’s to say they won’t be reset again next season?
The defense is another matter though, The pass defense was amongst the worst in the league, and at times appeared puzzle-pieced together from a scrap heap of players, leftover from other teams. The pass rush mustered only 33 sacks, after posting only 34 in 2013 and 37 in 2012. It’s obviously in a state of regression and who knows if next season the team will be able to even crack 30 without an infusion of talent. The rush defense, although coming on strong towards the end of the season, finished sixth against the run, allowing 100.3 yards-per-game. I can remember the stretch of games where the Steelers defense didn’t allow a 100-yard-rusher, period. The defense, at every level, needs somewhat of a kickstart, and although usually not big spenders in free agency, there are several free agents who could fit the bill.
Starting with the defensive line, the team is set long-term at defensive end, as Cameron Heyward, the team co-leader with 7.5 sacks, and rookie second-rounder Stephon Tuitt are the bookends. Although nose tackle Steve McLendon has done a decent job, the drop off between him and Casey Hampton is immense. any 3-4 defensive front needs a two-gap plugger right in the middle. Behemoth rookie Daniel McCullers played more and more down the stretch, logging a season-high in snaps in the loss to Baltimore. He showed a lot of promise but is far from a finished product. An interesting name that will be available on the free agent market is B.J. Raji. Coming off his one-year “prove-it” deal with the Green Bay Packers, he suffered a season-ending torn biceps in the preseason. He was formidable against the run earlier in his career, before being asked to play out of position as a 3-4 end. This past season, it was reported he’d be playing more of his natural position at nose tackle, but that never materialized. He could probably be had at a bargain rate, and with McLendon only signed through 2015, who knows what the future could hold. And if even for depth, how much worse than Cam Thomas could he be?
As far as pass rushers, the top rated one on the market is Justin Houston, who led the league with 22 sacks. Can the team afford him though? It’s highly unlikely, even after the cap relief that’s expected after signing Roethlisberger to a long-term deal. A name to watch is Brandon Graham of the Philadelphia Eagles. A rotational player for much of his career, he’s capable of playing in a 4-3 or a 3-4, but may be more suited for the latter. At 6-foot-2 and 265 pounds, he’s built like a LaMarr Woodley clone and could possibly flourish given a change of scenery. Another name to keep tabs on is Jabaal Sheard of the Cleveland Browns. After being passed up by Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo on the depth chart, Sheard posted a career-low two sacks this past season, after posting 8.5 in 2011, his rookie year. The Steelers could kill two birds with one stone here, by not only helping solidify a position of need but also weakening a division rival.
Last, but most definitely not least, is the secondary, particularly cornerback. Kareem Jackson had a solid year for the Houston Texans and is still young, at the age of 26. A target fans would love to see in black and gold is Byron Maxwell of the Seattle Seahawks. The odd man out in Seattle’s feared “Legion of Boom” secondary, Maxwell could be signed and shore up arguably the team’s biggest position of need. A big, physical corner at 6-foot-1 and 207 pounds, his coverage skills plus physicality versus the run could make him a target the front office covets.
There are holes at every level of the defense, and with the offense seemingly set, retooling is needed, and the obvious direction of focus is on defense.