From the Notepad: Getting a Feel for the Steelers Defense

Who's starting at nickelback? Do the Pittsburgh Steelers have a reliable backup in the secondary? How much will Cam Sutton move around?
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PITTSBURGH -- As much turnover as the Pittsburgh Steelers have on the offensive side of the ball, the defense is going to look different - so let's talk about it.

Thursday's practice at Heinz Field didn't include padded football players. The Steelers went helmets and shorts after just one day of hitting, which was the perfect opportunity to see what the defensive sets will look like.

Despite not having pads on, the defensive starters shut down the offense in the two-minute drill to end practice. Minkah Fitzpatrick's tackle on JuJu Smith-Schuster secured the victory as the team scrambled to line up and spike the ball.

Mike Tomlin and Smith-Schuster weren't happy.

"When Minkah tackled [Smith-Schuster] on the field of play right there, the game is over, and we have to have the level of awareness," Tomlin said after practice. "It was annoying, yes, but I also acknowledge the learning process is part of this."

So, let's start with the winning side of the two-minute drill.

From what we know, both from the initial depth chart and watching training camp for the last two weeks, this is the Steelers' starting 11 on defense.

Cam Heyward - DT
Tyson Alualu - NT
Stephon Tuitt - DE

T.J. Watt - LOLB
Devin Bush - ILB
Robert Spillane - ILB
Alex Highsmith - ROLB

Green dot: Undecided.

"For me, it's easy to make the calls. It's comfortable to make the calls," Spillane said. "I think it's comfortable for him to make the calls as well. We play really well off each other. We have communications about it every day. Who's saying certain communications, who's talking to guys, who's aligning people. We're figuring each other out really well."

Cameron Sutton - CB
Antoine Brooks Jr. - NB
Joe Haden - CB

Terrell Edmunds - SS
Minkah Fitzpatrick - FS

There are key pieces to this defense that aren't included in the first 11. On Thursday, Haden didn't participate much, leaving James Pierre as his replacement.

That's a pretty clear indication he's the team's primary backup ahead of Justin Layne.

Layne and undrafted rookie Mark Gilbert worked with the second team. Arthur Maulet made a great play off the edge in the endzone that would've resulted in a sack. He's worked as the backup nickelback behind Brooks.

Other notable backups:

Chris Wormley (obviously)
Melvin Ingram (double obviously)
Miles Killebrew
Marcus Allen

"The best thing about Marcus [Allen] is that he's a willing hitter," linebacker coach Jerry Olsavsky said. "He doesn't have a problem with the contact part of the game. He's coming along fine.

"Unfortunately, when you play defensive back and you have a lot of space, the contact is a little different ... That's what we're getting Marcus used to. But Marcus has a very good body type. Once he figures out how to use that body correctly, he's going to be an excellent player."

Sutton has kept his role as the dimebacker through two weeks of camp. Olsavsky isn't sure that'll stick but believes the four-year vet fits perfectly at the position.

"We're trying to figure out who's the outside corner, who's the dime, who's the nickel," Olsavsky said. " ... He's a good player. He's savvy. He's got ball-search potential. He's got a lot of things that you like about him. That's why we kept him [at the position]."

Can we expect Sutton in the dimebacker role all season?

"It wouldn't surprise me at all, because he's so multiple and he can do a lot of things," Olsavsky said.

Then, there are the rookies.

Tre Norwood headlines the list of potential rookies with a role on the Steelers. The sixth-round pick is the team's new "Swiss army knife defensive back," who has a real opportunity to be a contributing part to this defense.

He's primarily playing safety through two weeks of camp while Brooks and Maulet work at nickelback. Head coach Mike Tomlin mentioned Norwood could see time at the slot in the upcoming weeks but is learning the safety position before moving around the field.

On Thursday, his day included two interceptions. One came against Isaiah McKoy in the endzone during one-on-ones, the other on a throw across the middle from Mason Rudolph.

Fourth-round pick Buddy Johnson is still competing for a role with Ulysees Gilbert III and Allen. After the retirement of Vince Williams, the Steelers need a backup inside linebacker. One of these three are going to see significant playing time compared to the others.

"Some guys were drafted higher, but as an all-around linebacker, Buddy [Johnson] is a damn good inside linebacker," Olsavsky said. "He can do a lot of things well. ... Buddy's got a really good skill set, just like [Ulysees Gilbert]. Uly can run, he can jump. Buddy's got the same skill set."

Isaiahh Loudermilk and Quincy Roche don't have much of a role yet. Chances are they won't in the early portion of the season. 

Noah Strackbein is a Publisher with AllSteelers. Follow Noah on Twitter @NoahStrack, and AllSteelers @si_steelers.

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