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4 Reasons Steelers Defense Could Fail to Meet Expectations

The Pittsburgh Steelers defense is talented but what are the biggest causes for concern?

On paper, the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense looks pretty appealing. 

They have a trio of players in T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Cam Heyward that would give any other contender a run for its money. The supporting cast is filled with role players that are quality complimentary pieces to support their stars. The first year of new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin was a success, and along with Mike Tomlin, there's a proven track record to be confident in this group moving forward.

The Steelers' formula is to dominate up front, get after the passer, and force turnovers on the back end, simple as that. But as they say, "The games are played for a reason." 

While it's completely reasonable to expect this group to finish better than their 16th-placed finish in points per drive this upcoming season, it's far from a guarantee. What are some of the reasons that this group could fail to meet expectations in 2023?

The Injury Bug Bites T.J. Watt (Again)

Injuries are the unfortunate factor that typically ruins a couple of teams' seasons each year before they really begin. After securing Defensive Players of the Year honors in 2021, Watt missed most of the 2022 season with a torn pec injury. Simply put, Watt is the Steeler's best player on either side of the ball, and his effect on the game is borderline immeasurable. Beyond his impact in the win/loss column, the advanced numbers support his importance.

With Watt on the field last season, the Steelers' pressure rate jumped 36.6% compared to 26.5% with him off of the field. Pittsburgh's sack rate also doubled with him on the field, sacking opposing quarterbacks on 9.2% of their dropbacks, according to Sports Info Solutions. At 29 years old, the superstar edge rusher is in the middle of his prime and the one player that the Steelers simply cannot afford to miss for any extended amount of time. He's that important. 

Communication Errors On The Back End

While the expectations never change in Pittsburgh, the faces certainly have. Cam Sutton and Terrell Edmunds were both versatile defensive pieces on the back end that were a part of the system for quite a while. Pittsburgh was clearly happy to completely overhaul their inside linebacker room, replacing Devin Bush and Myles Jack with Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts. When you throw in Joey Porter Jr., who is certainly going to play sooner rather than later, there's a lot of change in the back seven of the defense. 

Why is that important? Since the arrival of Minkah Fitzpatrick in 2019, the Steelers have been very good at preventing explosive plays. NFL offenses create most of their explosives through the air, and one of the best ways to prevent those from happening is making sure everyone is on the same page from a communication, alignment, and assignment standpoint. Fitzpatrick was lights out again last year, but they'll probably be relying on him even more next season. 

Secondary Age (Old and Young)

Pittsburgh didn't wait long to replace Cam Sutton in free agency, immediately pivoting to signing Patrick Peterson to a two-year deal. After a decline in previous years, Peterson had a bit of a resurgence last season, breaking up nine passes and picking off five more. At 32 years old, Peterson is being thrust into a drastically different scheme, one that could potentially involve him moving around more to the slot. Peterson's track record is as good as it gets, but it's fair to acknowledge that this transition might not be a seamless one. 

After falling out of the first round on draft weekend, Joey Porter Jr. is obviously going to be anxious to prove the doubters wrong. Porter was rarely challenged in the Big10 last season, with teams avoiding him like the plague. Assuming he plays in sub packages early on, that will change quickly, as veteran quarterbacks will test him early and often. Porter's size and length offer tons of excitement around his upside, but his footwork is still a major work in progress. Not every rookie cornerback comes in and looks like Sauce Gardner. In fact, most are the exact opposite, so patience is key for the youngster.

Off-Ball Linebacker Play Remains Status Quo

Ever since Ryan Shazier suffered the unfortunate injury that ended his career prematurely, the Steelers inside linebacker room has been an ugly mess. Between a plethora of free agency misses and Devin Bush not panning out, Pittsburgh overhauled their room once again this spring. Enter Holcomb and Roberts. 

The bar is set pretty low for the newcomers, but if the defense as a whole wants to rejoin the elites, they'll need more impact plays from this tandem next season.

Holcomb is an athletic, rangy linebacker who flows fast to the football, and the Steelers are relying on his athletic ability to morph itself into coverage reliability as the team's three-down backer. 

Roberts is a throwback, thumper type that comes downhill with bad intentions but is a liability in coverage. Both players can fill roles on defense, but it'll be up to the Steelers' coaching staff to position them for success. Pittsburgh needs more splash from their linebackers next year in order to reach their potential. 

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