There are a lot of problems with the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. That is unfortunately the only thing that anybody wants to focus on now, ignoring all of the positives that there are as well. We just saw a season in which they recorded more sacks than they ever have in their history, but the virtual consensus seems to be that everybody except perhaps John Mitchell should already be in Cleveland.
That said, there are real problems, and they need to be addressed this offseason. For starters, how do you play effective run defense if you don’t have Ryan Shazier? Because they clearly were not prepared for that down the stretch. Even though they did not allow a lot of chunk plays, they were gutted time and time again for seven to 15 yards.
Even back when they drafted Shazier with the 15th-overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, they talked about him as something of a band-aid. His unique sub-4-3 speed at the linebacker position allows them to do so many different things than any other team who does not have that ability.
His elite speed allowed him to make up not just for his own mistakes, but for the mistakes of others as well. And we saw how apparent that was watching others like Sean Spence and Arthur Moats trying to fill his role in the defense after he was injured.
There is simply no replacing Shazier, which means that the defense itself has to change in order to accommodate his absence. It was built with him in mind, so if he is not there, then other ideas need to take shape.
At the moment, I have no idea how the Steelers plan to approach the inside linebacker position. I’m sure even they are not entirely clear just yet on how they are going to handle it, but they will naturally tell you that they will seek all options from within, through the draft, and through free agency.
Simply replacing a linebacker is not all it will take, however. Something that especially Cameron Heyward has talked about all season has been the importance of players simply trusting one another to be in their spots and to do their jobs, and that many of the big running mistakes this season were attributable to not having that.
Unfortunately, there were too many times this season where players really were not doing their jobs, for whatever reason, so in that sense it is hard to build that trust when you have a body of evidence that tells you said trust is not justified.
This is a young and talented defense, but it is also one that is not communicating the way it should be, nor is it playing with the requisite level of discipline. This falls on all the players, and all the coaches, together. There is no one fall guy. It’s a universal problem, and pointing fingers doesn’t provide an answer.