What has become of the Steelers' vaunted defense? The coming rebuild will start in the secondary.
With the majority of the NFL's transaction action behind us, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar hand out grades for each team's off-season.
After two straight 8–8 seasons, the Steelers re-established themselves as the top team in the AFC North in 2014 with an offensive explosion not seen before in the Ben Roethlisberger era. The Steelers ranked seventh in yards and second in points, the franchise's best season in that regard since the 1979 Super Bowl team ranked first in both categories.
Roethlisberger set career highs in attempts, completions, completion percentage, passing yards and touchdowns. Running back Le'Veon Bell became a serious weapon in his second season, rushing for 1,361 yards and amassing 2,215 yards from scrimmage. Receiver Antonio Brown ranked first at his position in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, catching 129 passes on 181 targets for 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns. What was once a suspect offensive line became a real force, and the Steelers became the kind of team that could blow out any opponent. The most obvious examples came in a midseason stretch against the Colts and Ravens in which Roethlisberger became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw six touchdown passes in two straight games. Just as impressive was the fact that he didn't throw an interception in either game.
In the end, though, it wasn't enough. The 11–5 Steelers bowed out of the playoffs in the wild-card round with a loss to the Ravens, and in an uncharacteristic twist, it was their defense that kept them from going any further. Pittsburgh ranked 30th in FO's metrics, by far the franchise's lowest finish in the history of FO's stats, which currently go back to 1989. Moreover, that performance was the continuation of a worrisome trend: The same defense that ranked first overall in 2010 dropped to seventh, 13th and 19th in the next three years before last season's freefall.
No position group is immune from scrutiny, but the Steelers' secondary was the biggest disaster. Brice McCain, who left for Miami in free agency, was the only Steelers cornerback to allow an opponent passer rating lower than 93.1 and the only cornerback to finish with more interceptions than touchdowns allowed. Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu retired, leaving this formerly dominant unit with a host of question marks. Legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau also left to help run the Titans' defense. New defensive coordinator Keith Butler is well aware of what he's inheriting—he had served as linebackers coach since 2003. His defense needs a lot more sacks than the 33 it put up in 2014, and the 4.4 yards per run it allowed is about as far from the Steel Curtain legacy as you can get.
But the team made no free agent moves to improve that defense—the only high-profile acquisition was former Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams, who will be tested early. Bell will miss the first three games of the season due to violations of the NFL's substance abuse policy, and he's still recovering from a knee injury that kept him out of the playoffs.
Basically, if the Steelers' draft picks can't boost their defense, they're in a heap of trouble. And if Big Ben produces anything less than an encore of his amazing 2014 campaign, this team could be staring 8–8 in the face again.
Best acquisition: Bud Dupree, OLB
Linebacker Jason Worilds's surprise retirement in March took another chunk out of the Steelers' projected sack totals. Worilds tied with Cameron Heyward for the team lead in 2014 with 7.5 quarterback takedowns. James Harrison was the second-most productive linebacker in this regard with 5.5 sacks, but he just turned 37 and will likely see fewer reps in 2015. Jarvis Jones, the team's first-round pick in 2013, missed half the 2014 season with a wrist injury and didn't do much when he was healthy. So, the team's selection of Dupree, the speedy and versatile linebacker out of Kentucky, was a case of addressing a glaring need.
At 6'4" and 269 pounds, Dupree hit the national radar at the scouting combine, when he ran a 4.69 40-yard dash and blew up all the other drills. But those who had watched his tape already knew Dupree was a versatile player who is just as effective when asked to drop into coverage as he is when bending the edge and getting after the quarterback.
“He's very, very strong at the point,” general manager Kevin Colbert said of Dupree in May. “When you watch him work out as we did on his pro day, you have to keep telling yourself this guy is 6'4", 269. He can power rush, he can speed rush, he can put moves together and he can cover.”
The Steelers could use all of those skills. Dupree totaled 23.5 sacks over four seasons for the Wildcats, including 7.5 in 2014. He'll be asked to line up everywhere from the edge to the slot right away.
Biggest loss: Brice McCain, CB
It's hard to understand why Colbert didn't try harder to keep McCain—the Dolphins signed him to a two-year, $5 million contract with $3 million guaranteed, chump change for the best cover man Pittsburgh had in 2014, whether outside or in the slot. It's in the slot where McCain proved his value: In 2014, he was targeted 35 times in the slot, giving up 22 catches for 235 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and a 70.5 opposing quarterback rating, which tied with Green Bay's Casey Hayward for the league's second-best behind Denver's Chris Harris. Mike Tomlin has expressed confidence in his current secondary—more on this in a minute—but it's easy to believe that he'd have more confidence if McCain was still on his roster.
Underrated draft pick: Gerod Holliman, FS, Louisville (239th overall pick)
Why did Holliman last all the way to the seventh round after tying an NCAA record with 14 interceptions? Put simply, Holliman is not a physical player. He doesn't always tackle with great effort, and when he does put in the effort, his repertoire consists primarily of simple shoulder-pops. Colbert, who was no doubt ecstatic about getting Calvin Pryor's college replacement with a throwaway pick, leaned on the stats.
“I don’t know how many times we said this through our draft preparations, but 14 interceptions is no accident,” Colbert said after the selection. “This kid has great instincts, great awareness, he’s a great studier of film. You see him making breaks on the ball before the quarterback throws it, and he has the hands to catch it.”
All these things are true, but if you have an aversion to contact in the NFL, you won't play for long. If Holliman can overcome this, he has a chance to help a secondary in dire need of playmakers.
Looming question for training camp: What will that secondary look like?
Colbert certainly understood the need in the draft, taking underrated Mississippi cornerback Senquez Golson in the second round as the first of three picks used on defensive backs. Golson led the SEC with 10 interceptions in 2014, and he has admirable ball skills and physicality that belies his 5'9", 176-pound frame. He may replace McCain as the main man in the slot. Outside, the Steelers will welcome back William Gay and Cortez Allen, despite sub-par coverage seasons from both players—Allen was actually benched in favor of McCain last October. Antwon Blake should get more reps as well. At safety, it's believed that Shamarko Thomas will replace Polamalu, a daunting task under the best possible circumstances. Holliman will compete for playing time with veteran Will Allen, who can play both safety slots with decent results.
Tomlin, a longtime secondary coach before he became Pittsburgh's head coach in 2007, seemed relatively unconcerned about the turnover at the owners meetings in March.
“We believe in the process that we go through, and we also believe in the men that we have,” he said. “I know that some of the guys that we have on our roster at the position right now don’t have extended resumes. But that’s always the case. How do you gain experience without going through the process of gaining experience. These guys are driven, and they want to be positive contributors to our efforts and reasons why we are successful. Some of those guys played key roles down the stretch last year. Antwon Blake made a few significant plays for us in big moments, stripping the ball from A.J. Green late in December to kind of secure the AFC North title for us, being an example. I expect the guys that we have continue to grow and get better. I expect to add credible and competent men to that mix to provide competition, and put them in a competitive environment to see who comes out on top. And I am completely comfortable that at the end of that we are going to have above-the-line cornerback play.”
That would be good, because anything below the line might pull the rest of the team down with it.