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Why is no one talking about the Steelers’ defense?

Ryan Shazier

During the franchise’s dynasty of the 1970s, the household names in Pittsburgh revolved around the Steelers’ defense. From their bruising linebackers, headlined by Jack Lambert and Jack Ham, to their towering defensive line, those teams boasted a menacing front seven. Then, the new era came of Polamalu, Porter, Farrior, Woodley, Aaron Smith, and Ike Taylor, just to name a few.

After Bill Cowher got a Super Bowl under his belt and retired, the Rooney’s replaced him with a former defensive coordinator who was inheriting a talented defense coming off a Super Bowl two years prior. The table was set.

Flash forward ten years later. In Steeler Nation today, the names that come to mind are almost strictly from the offensive side of the ball. The killer B’s, they’re often called are Ben, Bell, Brown, and Bryant.

What if 2017 could introduce a killer D?

A new era

The defense is far from established. I doubt in Week 1 it will be the Steelers’ defense that makes Cleveland coach Hue Jackson toss and turn in his sleep.

Pittsburgh’s defensive unit is young and athletic, but it still has a veteran presence at each position that will help develop these budding stars. Mike Mitchell and William Gay are established gamers in the secondary who still have plenty of juice left in the tank. Cam Heyward leads the defensive line and is in the prime of his career. Finally, James Harrison leads the young linebackers in what is quickly becoming a defense with talent and depth across the board.

Investing in the draft

In the last four years they have invested four first round picks (Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Artie Burns and T.J. Watt) and three second round picks in Stephon Tuitt, Senquez Golson, and Sean Davis. Minus Golson, six of these picks can be deemed high value for their respective selections.

Ryan Shazier is coming off a Pro Bowl season, and if he stays healthy, he could be the answer the Steelers are looking for to replace Lawrence Timmons as the center piece and leader of this defense. Bud Dupree, after missing the first half of the season due to injury, had 4.5 sacks in his final four games and is trending upwards. Artie Burns missed the majority of his first training camp due to injury, but that never slowed him down. He received a grade from Pro Football Focus of 76.3, which was the 12th best grade given to any first-round pick last year.

That 76.3 grade was good enough to make Artie, who was selected 25th overall, the 38th highest ranked corner in the league. Now, after a full training camp and season under his belt, Burns can look forward to becoming a shutdown corner.

T.J. Watt cannot be evaluated fairly given that he’s only been in the league for three months. It’s worth mentioning that he did record two sacks in his first five minutes of Pittsburgh’s first preseason game, and having the Steelers all-time sack leader showing him the ropes should only increase his chances of success this year.

Coming for the QB

Stephon Tuitt’s name has been in the local headlines recently for saying “I want double digit sacks and I know I could get it.” That type of talk makes you scratch your head until you look at what he did last year.

After Heyward was lost for the year to a torn pectoral, Tuitt was looked at to step up, and that he did. Pro Football Focus gave him a rating of 83.2, which ranked him as the 20th best defensive lineman in all of football. He did this without much help, as Heyward was out and third-round pick Javon Hargrave was learning on the fly. As he enters his fourth season, Tuitt’s numbers should only improve. The Steelers have Cam Heyward healthy and they added more depth along the line thanks to Kevin Colbert picking up Tyson Alualu, as well as a more seasoned Javon Hargrave.

Sean Davis was selected with the benefit of his versatility. After a season ending injury to Golson left a big question mark in the slot corner position last training camp, Davis took the majority of reps as a slot corner. However, as veteran William Gay slid into that role, Davis was able to return back to his natural position as strong safety in the first half of the season.

He was finally inserted into the starting lineup midway through the season and never looked back. He finished 2016 tied for the second-most sacks among defensive backs. His well-documented tackling skills from college were on full display, rarely missing opportunities to take down opposing ball carriers. His coverage skills need to improve, but with another camp under his belt in his natural position, and veteran hard-hitting free safety Mike Mitchell across from him, Davis is primed to be the safety blanket needed on the strong side.

Taking that next step

The defense has the talent and player-coaches available to become dynamic. But have any signs shown us that as a unit they can be effective?

If you look at 2016 as a whole, the answer would be shaky. However, if viewed from the second half on, it becomes much more clear. This is logical as the majority of the starters were young, inexperienced, and were learning a new system and needed time to adjust. In the second half of last season, the defense had 27.0 sacks, 9 interceptions, and averaged 19.5 points allowed per game. If they double those numbers to create a full season, the Steelers defense would rank second in sacks, sixth in interceptions, and 8th in points allowed per game.

This was all done with a first-year defensive coordinator in Keith Butler. Butler and his young stars should be hungry to prove that they are an intimidating force to complement an electric offense this season.