Recent Run On Defense In First Round Is Fuel Necessary For Turnaround

Over the course of the majority of their recent history, the Pittsburgh Steelers worked to become an even-handed team when it came to switching off between the offensive and defensive sides of the ball with respect to their premium resources—particularly in the first round, which is the best opportunity to accrue elite talent.

Between the 2006 and 2013 season, the Steelers were able to successfully navigate the first round without excessively flooding one side of the ball or the other with a greater share of the talent load. Beginning with wide receiver Santonio Holmes in 2006 and ending with outside linebacker Jarvis Jones in 2013, they had gone back and forth, alternating every year.

It hasn’t always evenly worked out that way, of course, but rarely would a streak on one side of the ball or another ever last more than three consecutive drafts. In fact, as best as I can tell, the last time such a streak of more than three drafts occurred was in the four drafts leading up to Joe Greene in 1969, which most notably included wide receiver Roy Jefferson.

The Steelers have now run up the scoreboard in the past five years with defensive draft picks, however, and you would have to go back to the 50s to find a similar run for one side of the ball—an era in which many players actually played on both sides of the ball.

One thing is clear, however, and that is that this era of the team has made a concerted effort to invest in returning their defensive to the top-level status that it has secured for itself through much of the 2000s, which coincided with a trio of appearances in the Super Bowl, and a couple of trophies to go along with it.

It started with Jones in 2013, and was followed up by Ryan Shazier, an inside linebacker, in 2014. A third consecutive linebacker, edge defender Bud Dupree, was added a year later in 2015 before the cornerback position got its due in 2016 with the drafting of Artie Burns. Most recently, of course, the Steelers added a third outside linebacker in the past five years—and fourth linebacker in total—after drafting T.J. Watt in the 2017 NFL Draft.

It hasn’t always worked out, of course. Jones completed his rookie contract without his club option being picked up and he now left in free agency. His inability to catch on largely precipitated the drafting of Dupree and Watt.

So far through that group, however, the Steelers have netted three starters, one of which has gone to the Pro Bowl in Shazier, with Dupree and Burns both showing significant flashes. Watt is not expected to immediately enter the starting lineup, but should play a notable role during his rookie season.

As if that were not enough, the Steelers have also added an additional five defenders in the second and third rounds in the previous four drafts, notably Stephon Tuitt, Sean Davis, and Javon Hargrave, all of whom are starting. This has quickly become a fairly young defense with high pedigree.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • Luke Shabro

    It worked out well for the offensive line. Hoping the same will hold true for the defense

  • Mark

    This is the key to beating New England, however, our Head Coach, Defensive Coordinator, DB, LB, and DL coaches must come up with a different game plan against the Patriots. I know I’m obsessed with New England, however, they are on the only team standing in our way to #7. No longer care about Ratbirds and there is no other team in the AFC that concerns me. Maybe the Raiders a little.

  • SfSteeler

    proper skill set, brains, versatility, and the ability to TACKLE please…oh, and the Raiders with Beast Mode, now thats a real playoff team, not like the rest of the ‘one and dones’ in the AFC…

  • The Sun is Pro-Black

    About 3-4 years late though. All of the drafts since 2010 should have been defense heavy…specifically DB heavy. The writing was on the wall.

  • Steel Realist PAul

    It’s necessary. I would have been okay with the Steelers drafting defense in the first 3 rounds this year as well. They’re close, and the window is closing while it’s still being built in some respects.

    I don’t want to see the Steelers beat the Patriots, finally, in 5 or 6 years after Brady retires. I want them now. And the AFCCG showed the Steelers can’t cover the Pats offense without more DB help.

    This offseason effort was not enough to change that. UNLESS, everything that could go perfectly well for Steelers fortune happens. Burns and Cockrell each grow fully into their roles on the outside as both man cover corners and run defenders; The Tennessee kid is an excellent cover guy right out of the gate and can shut down his man in the playoffs; Sensabaugh takes a major leap from backup player to a corner that can actually help in the nickel; Ghoston is healthy and has learned so much sitting on the bench watching that he’s an excellent slot corner by the end of the year and the Steelers are suddenly strong in the secondary. Room for one injury in that scenario.

  • Chenz33

    If Dupree can become the 10+ sack guy that I think he can be, this defense is very nearly elite as it stands.

  • Dshoff

    Watt really doesn’t look very big at all. I know that biggness isn’t everything, but it sure looks like he is going to have to beef up to play with the big boys. Can’t wait to see what he AND Dupree do in the preseason.

  • Stas

    I think also really helped that Steelers have found great offensive weapons later in the draft – Brown, Sanders, Wallace, Wheaton, Bryant, Bell. Getting all those guys over the last 7 years really affords you to not have to pick offence early – unless somebody like DeCastro falls down

  • CP72

    Watt was 252. That’s better than average. You are right he he’s a got a frame that you could add 10 pounds to pretty easily though.

  • CP72

    Carr, Lynch, Crabtree, Cooper vs. Roethlisberger, Bell, Brown Bryant….boy if I’m a d-coordinator I’m dreading the Steelers offense more than the Raiders.

  • ATL96STEELER

    I’m not ready to put PIT & NE back in the AFCCG yet, but I agree that NE is the class of the conference and until PIT can best them they won’t get back to the back Superbowl.

    The scary part is IDT the ’16 version of the Pats were that complete of a team. They certainly has a DEF that could be exploited. Now, they’ve taken steps to get better themselves so it’s paramount that Butler & Tomlin figure out 3rd down.

  • ATL96STEELER

    They really had no other choice for the long term health of the team. Turnover of the DEF was a long time coming but a few swing and misses prolonged it.

    They missed on Hood, but recovered with Tuitt and Heyward. They missed on Shamarko Thomas, hopefully Davis is the answer. The early reports look promising. They missed on Cortez Allen, hopefully Burns is the answer, early reports look promising here also. They missed on Jarvis Jones, and now they’re trying to recover with Watt.

  • AndyR34

    You are oh so correct on the many misses! 🙁

  • Matthew Marczi

    The problem with being able to get so much young talent on the field so quickly is that it comes at the expense of simplifying your system in order to minimize the number of mistakes that can be made due to inexperience. As a result, you lose a lot of nuance and flexibility. As these players grow, I think we’ll begin to see a re-expansion of what the Steelers used to do, with new wrinkles as well. I definitely would expect to see more man coverage this year, for example.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Perhaps–though they did take a pair of DEs in the first round in ’09 and ’11–but it’s also true that the offensive line was badly in need of retouching, and frankly, on the priority level, protecting your $100 million quarterback comes first.

  • Matthew Marczi

    I think his brother J.J. will show him what he needs to do as far as training and bulking up while retaining athleticism goes. Keith Butler actually already alluded to that recently.

  • Matthew Marczi

    To be fair to Cortez, he did play well for a time before injuries mounted, so I think it would be much more applicable to say that they missed on Curtis Brown (although the decision to sign him to an extension [over Keenan Lewis] was a separate mistake), but yes, you’re right. And I have to say that I’m glad to see them demonstrating a willingness to compensate for their misses.

  • The Sun is Pro-Black

    Yea, I completely understood that. The o-line was terrible and they jumped to correct it. The question is why did it take them so long to do the same for the secondary?

  • Matthew Marczi

    I mean, it’s not like they weren’t drafting secondary players. Yes, it came in the 3rd round or later, and that’s a fair case to make. They made the mistake of relying upon Cortez Allen, which may have dissuaded them from looking harder at the secondary sooner. And they were overly hopeful about Shamarko Thomas. They certainly could have done more, although of course it’s hard to address everything all the time.

  • ATL96STEELER

    Agree on Allen and Brown actually, but at some point Allen lost his confidence and never seem to recover.

    I didn’t mention McClendon, but I’m not sure if he was ever intended to be Hampton’s long term replacement. I just think these misses sort of prolonged where the Steelers are in grand scheme of things.

    The GB loss in the SB was sort of the peak (if not, certainly the loss to Tebow) of a lot of those DEF players that needed to be turned over. When you consider the number of 1st replacement options that didn’t work on DEF, you really have to credit Ben and the OFC players they did hit on to keep the team competitive thru this transition.

  • Big Joe

    We should also add on the variables of having to do it during a time of changed free agency dynamics, slowly increasing salary cap growth early on, an increased number of 3-4 teams sapping the pool of available talent, and a shift in defensive philosophy creating more needs for sustaining sub-package football on D rather than the base defense. This changed the frequency of player restock and the need to get men on the field sooner rather then 2-3 years into a 4-year contract, and it created a need for faster top-notched LBs and DL who can penetrate quickly for pressure. Add a smattering of top 2-3 Rd DBs so they play earlier – in theory – and you have a multi-year series of top draft picks going to the defensive side of the ball. Next year – crystal ball time – I see S, ILB, move TE potentially early with LG, CB and OLB for added depth. No order of precedence though.

  • LucasY59

    JJ looks Bulky and makes TJ look small when they are next to each other, maybe lil Bro can get big like his brother but he also needs to stay quick and athletic so I dont think he gets as big as JJ, but having the combo of speed and power that big bro has would definitely help TJ

  • LucasY59

    adding 10 lbs of good weight would probably keep him under 260 (lose some bad weight while adding the lean muscle)

  • Big Joe

    Agreed. Gotta get em on the field first and take advantage of their talent and contract years. The experience will accelerate our ability to get more complex later on. While not a certainty, that need usually requires drafting that talent earlier than they historically liked to do.

  • LucasY59

    and having one star pass rusher usually helps the guy rushing from the opposite side, …and then pressure from the inside

    I agree this D has a lot of potential (hopefully the Secondary can develop as well so instead of a weak link they have an overall dominant group)

  • TrappenWeisseGuy ;

    The thing that troubles me is that Wisconsin is known to have a phenomenal weight room/program, so I would’ve thought he’d be a little more muscular. To give him credit though he did switch over from the TE position.

  • TrappenWeisseGuy ;

    Don’t forget Worilds,who got all religified and Jehovafied,as well as the premature decline of Woodley.

  • Chenz33

    Not to mention the secondary looks better if they don’t have to cover as long.

  • Brenton deed

    I agee to some degree the high pedigree picks in the OL allowed it to become a strength (beginning with Pouncey) but despite these picks the engine was sputtering until Munchak arrived. Now we have a surfeit of O linemen.

    The question is: can Peezy do the job?
    I think Lake demonstrated last year that if you give home some high picks he can develop them and Michell can (like Munchak) work magic with even low picks (e.g. Walton, Keisel..) I’m just not sure about Peezy.

    As great a player as peezy was I wouldn’t have minded if that court case had gone to hell for him and the Steelers were forced to let him go and hire Kevin Greene.

    Greene was credited by Jason Gildon as virtually coaching him up in his (Greene’s) last year with the Steelers.
    Naturally I hope l’m wrong about Peezy.

  • jsteeler

    who cares!

  • jsteeler

    Who gives a flying saucer about New England? Why are they the topic on a Steelers site in the spring? 3 MAJOR factors were critical in the Championship game. Health. #1. No Cam Heyward to apply pressure and help Tuitt & Hargraves. (Yes, A rookie with the only sack of Brady in the game) #2. No Ladarius Green to flood the seam and #3 No LeVeon Bell to take the pressure of Ben and the OL.Time of possession was very critical and although Deangelo did well Bell adds a different flow to the game. In the last 3 years going into the playoffs all 3 or 4 of these guys were injured. AB, Bell, Heyward and Ben was banged up In 2015. Heyward, Pouncey, and Bell in 2014.To have the best chance the Steelers Stars must be aligned and be healthy. Now this year, If all are healthy and The Steelers add a healthy Martavis Bryant and Ladarius Green this is definitely a different game.

  • VaDave

    Mark, I have a different point of view on how to beat the Patriots. You can’t go over 2 quarters without scoring any points and expect to beat them. As I’ve posted elsewhere, you are not going to shut down that offense. It’s the offensive version of our 1976 defense. It’s that good. That said, your best bet is to keep them on the bench and score touchdowns. I will again say the there is only one way to slow it down, and that is DL pressure up the middle of their offensive line, which is what Atlanta did in the Super Bowl for 3/4 of the game until they ran out of gas thanks to Matty Ice getting a major case of the yips in the 4th quarter.

  • VaDave

    The Raiders have been putting together one heck of a team. Al Davis’ departure from this orb was the best thing to happen to that franchise in decades.

  • VaDave

    Ball control, and keep Brady on the bench. It’s the only way.

  • VaDave

    Good points. I’m fairly certain that Pats didn’t get through their season without passing out band aids and Advil as well. I’ll agree that we have had some significant injuries that have derailed us in the playoffs the last several years. I’ll also agree, if we are a healthy team, it’s going to be a tough out for sure.

  • VaDave

    I’m going to disagree. Back then Ben was getting pummeled to the tune of 40 some odd sacks a year due to less than stellar OL play. It’s hard to fathom winning it all without your franchise QB playing at optimum output. Shoot, we haven’t been able to crack it without our star RB, let alone with a damaged QB.

  • VaDave

    Good point Matthew. I’d forgotten about those picks. There are only so many picks in a draft, and they are not all going to be future hall of famers. We did go through a lot of secondary picks through that era that just didn’t cut it. One thing is for sure, this is a whole lot better team top to bottom that what we were fielding 4-5 years ago.

  • VaDave

    Amen Brother.

  • ATL96STEELER

    J…I don’t think anyone really wants to talk about THAT team, but the reality is…they are the elephant in the room.

    All good points, but at the end of the day…you’ve got to play with who you can suit up with on that day…the W is still the goal. The Steelers have not gotten enough of them against that team.

  • VaDave

    Keep in mind, the best known historical baseball player, honored for hitting home runs, also held the MLB career strikeout record for 42 years. Sure we’ve missed on a few, but to judge how well you draft, you have to take the long view. Are we better than we were 5 years ago as a team? Yes. Are we better than 4 years ago? Yes. Three? Yep. Really it takes a couple of years to see what you have. Keep in mind hindsight is always 20-20. Cortez Allen was a player that ended up the knees of an 80 year old. No shame there. I think the only one I would consider a true whiff is Jarvis Jones as a first rounder. This one hurt. Shamarko as a mid round pick, had some potential, but when you get to mid rounds, if they’re on your roster for two or more years, you got value, so I wouldn’t call him a whiff. Hood? Yeah, he was missed cast, but he’s been solid after his departure.

  • ATL96STEELER

    Idk if that’s the only way, but it certainly is one way. The NYG beat them by banging Brady…The Ravens beat them by banging Brady, the Steelers when they did beat them, played physical with their WRs at the LOS disrupting the timing and they banged Brady around pretty good as well.

    In short…yes, keeping Brady off the field works, but imo the DEF simply has to get better

  • VaDave

    Oh, I hear you about getting after Brady alright ATL, but if I remember correctly, the last time we beat them we put up 35 points or something like that.

  • The Sun is Pro-Black

    Yea you’re right, but the o-line has been formidable for awhile now, they still haven’t really made defense a priority.

  • Mark

    I can remember beating the Patriots only once with Brady under center. Deshea Townsend had a pic 6. I watched the New England lose to NY Giants twice and their front four got after Brady but held up with 7 on the back end.

  • VaDave

    Mark, I’m not sure if you read any of my pre draft posts, but I am in full agreement with you. You have you have to get there with four, IMO preferably down linemen, and dang quick, or you will get picked apart even with a back 25 lol!!

  • AndyR34

    No disagreement from me actually, other than we may have a sl. different definition of a miss.

  • VaDave

    I’m not so sure if the Lewis/Brown deal was as much a choice between players as much as it was a choice between contracts. Spot on about Cortez. Those injuries just tore the heart out of him. That was really sad as the team had high hopes for him.

  • Mark

    Rush 4 , 7 cover, with 5 playing man to man and Davis doubling Gronk and Mitchell doubling Edelmen