As Terry Bradshaw so eloquently likes to say, “When you think of the Pittsburgh Steelers, you think of defense.”
That sentiment has largely held true for the better part of 40+ years. For the second consecutive year and fourth time in the last six years, the Steelers yielded the fewest yards in the NFL in 2012. Amazingly, the Steelers have ranked in the league’s top 10 for total defense (yards allowed per game) for every season this century.
But that ranking was a mirage in 2012, as the Steelers’ defense made few big plays, ranking just 15th in the NFL in sacks and tying for 27th in interceptions. Worse, the Steelers had the oldest starting defense in the entire league in 2012, and now must replace their premier pass rusher in James Harrison, who refused a paycut, was subsequently released in a salary cap purge, and recently signed with the division rival Cincinnati Bengals.
The problem is that Pittsburgh cannot initiate a youth movement, in part because their younger defensive players have mostly not developed, while they have no young prospects on the roster to develop at safety and inside linebacker. Therefore, expect the Steelers to draft defensive players possibly at every position area this week; foremost to improve the team’s pass rush, which is paramount to the Steelers’ defensive philosophy and success.
Accordingly, here is a checklist of Pittsburgh’s defensive needs, along with positional analyses and potential targets for this week’s NFL Draft, which begins on Thursday evening:
1. OUTSIDE LINEBACKER
Returnees: LaMarr Woodley, Jason Worilds, Chris Carter, Adrian Robinson
Off-season Additions: None thus far
Off-season Departures: James Harrison (signed with Cincinnati as a free agent after refusing a paycut, resulting in his release from Pittsburgh)
Position Analysis: Despite being 35 and injury-prone, Harrison remained the Steelers best outside linebacker and most consistent pass rusher in 2012. He led the team in sacks for 5 of the last 6 years, and brought relentless pressure even when he did not get to opposing quarterbacks. It was not surprising that the Steelers defense improved as last season progressed due to Harrison getting back into playing shape after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in mid-August. He will be missed, although his release was a salary-cap necessity after Harrison refused to accept a paycut that still would have resulted in him earning a higher salary than he will with the Bengals. LaMarr Woodley is paid like one of the best defensive players in football, and fit that description from 2008-11. But “fit” cannot be used to describe any part of Woodley last season. Famous for being a dominant pass rusher in spats, disappearing for several games at a time, but then being at his best in the most important games, Woodley showed up overweight last year, and was essentially a non-factor throughout 2012, evident by his four total sacks in 13 starts. The Steelers need Woodley to arrive to camp motivated and in-shape this fall, hoping to return to the form that saw him tally an impressive 53 sacks in 63 regular-season and post-season starts from 2008-11. Fourth-year pro Jason Worilds will get first crack at replacing Harrison in the starting line-up. Even the most ardent Steelers’ front-office defender must now admit that selecting Worlids in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft (when he was projected by most analysts to go in the third round or later) was an imprudent move, since there was little doubt that he would not start before 2013 barring injury to Harrison or Woodley. Ironically, Worilds was often not able to capitalize on playing opportunities when available over the last 3 years, because he has battled an assortment of nagging injuries throughout his Pittsburgh career just as he did at Virginia Tech. Due to injuries for both Harrison and Woodley, though, Worilds did get substantial playing time and made seven starts in 2012, flashing outside speed en route to tallying five sacks in limited duty. However, he has yet to master any actual pass-rush moves if he cannot simply beat his man to the outside. If Worlids stays healthy and has a strong year, he will likely depart as an unrestricted free agent that the Steelers cannot afford to keep. If neither or both of those fail to happen, then he is likely not the long-term answer at outside linebacker, which is one of the many reasons why the Steelers need to find a pass rusher in this draft. Third-year pro Chris Carter does not appear to be anything more than a career reserve, while 2012 rookie free agent Adrian Robinson remains a project who will try to impress again in the preseason to earn another roster spot.
Potential Draft Targets (with rounds representing very good/great value in parentheses): (1) Jarvis Jones, Georgia and Barkevious Mingo, LSU; (2-3) Jamie Collins, Southern Miss and Sio Moore, UCONN; (3) Khaseem Greene, Rutgers and Corey Lemonier, Auburn; (3-4) John Simon, Ohio State; (4) Trevardo Williams, UCONN; (4-5) Chase Thomas, Stanford
Draft Strategy: If Jones is on the board at No. 17, he should be the Steelers’ pick. We will document reasons why later this week, but he is simply the most accomplished pass rusher and defensive player in this draft. Mingo is an amazing athlete, who under-achieved in tallying just 5 sacks despite playing defensive end in LSU’s pressure defense. He will likely be off the board when the Steelers select, but may be too much of a boom-bust type as a 3-4 OLB prospect for the Steelers to consider. If they do not draft an outside linebacker prospect in the first round, look for Pittsburgh to do so in the third or fourth round. Unfortunately, this is not a a deep or talented or draft for 3-4 OLB prospects, but several undersized, converted ends with speed are intriguing prospects for that area of the draft.
Stay-away From: (1) Bjoern Warner, FSU; (1-2) Damontre Moore, Texas A&M; (2) Alex Okafor, Texas; (2-4) Cornelius Washington, Georgia
Why: These guys were all college defensive ends who appear to be too big and lack the fluidity to play 3-4 OLB in the NFL, with the exception of Washington. He played both 3-4 end and 3-4 OLB last fall at Georgia, and possesses freakish athleticism, although his reported 4.29 in the 40 at Georgia was the most ridiculous of the many exaggerated “unofficial” 40 times you will ever read. While he made a few splash plays and was impressive on special teams, too often Washington looked like Tarazan, but played like Jane during his collegiate career.
Returnees: SS Troy Polamalu, FS Ryan Clark, FS Robert Golden, SS Damon Cromartie-Smith
Off-season Additions: None thus far
Off-season Departures: Will Allen (signed with Dallas in free agency), Ryan Mundy (signed with the Giants in free agency)
Position Analysis: The Steelers still have one of the top safety tandems in the NFL, but Clark may have replaced Polamalu as the Steelers’ most important defensive back. Although no longer a dominant defender like he was throughout most of his career, the 32-year Polamalu remains a Pro-Bowl level star when fully healthy. The problem is that is becoming less often each year. Polamalu played in just seven games in 2012, the second time in the last four seasons where he saw action in less than half of the Steelers’ games. Polamalu has missed multiple games due to injuries in five of the past seven seasons. If that trend continues, he will be a prime candidate to be asked to take a significant paycut from his $10 million cap figure in 2014 or be released before the final year on his contract. The 33-year-old Clark turned down an opportunity to replace Ed Reed and earn his second Pro Bowl invite in three seasons last fall. The 12th-year pro continues to improve, but is slated to become an unrestricted free agent after 2013. The Steelers lost both of their second-team safeties (Allen and Mundy) to unrestricted free agency, so depth is a major concern, particularly due to Polamalu’s injury history.
Potential Draft Targets (with rounds representing very good/great value in parentheses): (1) FS/SS Kenny Vaccaro, Texas; (2) SS Matt Elam, Florida and FS Eric Reid, LSU; (3) FS/SS Phillip Thomas, Fresno State and FS D.J. Swearinger, South Carolina; (4) FS/SS T.J. McDonald, USC; (4-5) SS Shawn Williams, Georgia and SS Duke Williams, Nevada; (5) FS Tony Jefferson, Oklahoma; (6-7) FS Rontez Miles, California-Pa. and SS Robert Lester, Alabama
Draft Strategy: The Steelers have avoided this position for too long in the draft. They must take at least one safety and possibly two this spring, in part because it takes at least a year for a safety to learn Pittsburgh’s complex defensive scheme. Fortunately, this is a loaded draft at safety in the middle rounds. Vaccarro is not a great fit for the Steelers’ defense and there is no reason to take a safety in the first round when the position is so stocked with big-name prospects from major college programs throughout the draft. He should be selected among the top 40 picks, but the Steelers would have to strongly consider Elam in round No. 2 if he fell to them. Elam is a poor man’s Polamalu, which is definitely not an insult. Although not as good in area, Elam has many of the same attributes and comparable all-around ability. But a more sound strategy may be selecting two safeties in the middle and later rounds, with the hope that at least one develops into a starter and both become contributors.
Stay-away From: (3) SS Shamarko Thomas, Syracuse; (3-4) FS Bacarri Rambo, Georgia
Why: Thomas had a stellar career at Syracuse and was invited to a pre-draft visit with the Steelers. However, his lack of height (Thomas stands just under 5-9) makes him vulnerable in zone coverage and against jump balls. Rambo was a playmaker at Georgia, finishing with 16 career interceptions. However, he is horrible against jumpballs (was outjumped by 5-7 South Carolina receiver Ace Sanders, among others) and is not a reliable open-field tackler, a necessity for a Pittsburgh free safety.
3. DEFENSIVE LINE
Returnees: DE Brett Keisel, NT Steve McLendon, DE Ziggy Hood, DE Cameron Heyward, DE Al Woods, NT Alamdea Ta’amu, NT Hebron Fangupo
Off-season Additions: None thus far
Off-season Departures: None thus far, although NT Casey Hampton remains an unrestricted free agent.
Position Analysis: You must be thinking, “The Steelers do not need defensive linemen. Two of their last four first-round picks have been defensive ends.” Unfortunately those two picks – both of which I called for before their selections – have not turned out as expected. Although he cannot be labeled a bust, at this point it appears that Hood may turn out the worst first-round pick drafted by Colbert in his mostly exemplary record of first-round selections. Hood, a workout warrior who is entering his fifth season with team and his last before unrestricted free agency, seemingly just is not a good fit for the Steelers’ 3-4 defense. Pop in the tape of the Steelers’ ugly home win versus Kansas City last year, where the Chiefs opened the game by consistently and successfully running at Hood in the first half before he was pulled for the seldom-used Al Woods, which subsequently thwarted Kansas City’s success on the ground. The key tasks of 3-4 defensive linemen in the Steelers’ scheme are to hold their base and try to occupy multiple blockers. But Hood is regularly driven away from plays by a single offensive lineman. What’s worse is that the team’s 2011 first-round pick, Cameron Heyward, has yet to unseat Hood, instead only seeing spot duty during his first two seasons for the most part. However, it is too early to write off Heyward, particularly since his frame needed more time to develop than Hood’s after entering the NFL. The team’s best defensive end undoubtedly remains the 34-year-old Kiesel, who is entering the last year of his contract and what may be his final season in the NFL. The “Beard” passed up his second Pro Bowl appearance in the past three years due to injury following the 2012 season. Pittsburgh’s second best defensive lineman in 2012 was veteran nose tackle Casey Hampton, who was sluggish and slow in playing through a knee injury suffered in the 2011 postseason early in the regular season and then improved as the year progressed. While no longer elite, the 35-year-old Hampton could still be a solid part of a two-man rotation at nose tackle, but the Steelers appear determined to go with Steve McLendon as the starter, while letting larger second-year players Alamdea Ta’amu and Hebron Fangupo battle for the back-up job. Thanks to interest shown by the Packers in then-restricted free agent McLendon last week, the Steelers acutely inked him to a 3-year extension worth $7.5 million. This could be a steal if McLendon emerges as a quality starter. At the least, McLendon has already proven he is a serviceable, situational nose tackle, who can also play end.
Potential Draft Targets (with rounds representing very good/great value in parentheses): (2) NT/DE Jesse Williams, Alabama and DE Margus Hunt, SMU; (4) DE William Gholston, Michigan State; (4-6) DE Lavar Edwards, LSU; (5-7) NT Kwame Geathers, Georgia; (6-7) DE Joe Kruger, Utah
Draft Strategy: Although both of the team’s starting ends are slated to be unrestricted free agents after 2013, the Steelers may wait until the 2014 draft to tab another defensive end, particularly since this draft features a very weak crop of 3-4 defensive linemen. Even if he unexpectedly dropped to the middle of the second round, it would be illogical for the Steelers to select the 26-year-old Hunt that early to serve as the team’s No. 4 end in 2013. However, one defensive end should be taken in the later rounds for depth and development. Ta’amu and Fangupo will battle for the spot behind McLendon, allowing the Steelers to avoid reaching for a nose tackle from a weak group of prospects unless someone falls who they like. Due to his versatility, intensity and dominance in big games against elite competition, Williams would be a nice second-round pick, but the Steelers have more pressing needs to address.
Stay-away From: (2) NT John Jenkins, Georgia and NT Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State
Why: Both of these mammoth nose tackles under-achieved in 2012 and neither would represent good value in round No. 2. Neither is expected to fall to the third round, but the Steelers should not consider a nose tackle even if they do.
4. INSIDE LINEBACKER
Returnees: Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote, Stevenson Sylvester, Marshall McFadden, Sean Spence (likely to spend another season on IR)
Off-season Additions: None thus far
Off-season Departures: Brandon Johnson is an unrestricted free agent and not expected to return
Position Analysis: After inconsistencies and difficulty in learning all the intricacies of the Steelers’ defensive scheme, Lawrence Timmons fully emerged as both the team’s top defensive player of not only the present but also the long-term future in a 2012 season where he tied for the team lead in solo tackles (75) and sacks (6), while leading the squad with three interceptions. Veteran Larry Foote was re-signed to a reasonable 3-year contract after he recorded a team-high 113 total tackles last season. The key is to make Foote a 1- or 2-down mike linebacker again like he was early in his Pittsburgh career, so that his lack of speed is not exposed on obvious passing downs. After those two, Pittsburgh has little depth.
Potential Draft Targets (with rounds representing very good/great value in parentheses): (2) Arthur Brown, Kansas State and Kevin Minter, LSU; (4) Jon Bostic, Florida; (5-6) A.J. Klein, Iowa State; (7) Michael Mauti, Penn State
Draft Strategy: The Steelers want to take a developmental mike linebacker in this draft, but this is not a pressing need due to Foote’s re-signing and because this future starter will ideally be a part-time player who mainly sees action on run downs. Whereas both are studs, taking Brown or Minter in the second round would be too early to add depth. Brown is the better all-around player of the two, but his game is too similar to Timmons. The explosive Bostic in the fourth or highly-productive Klein in the fifth would be ideal.
Stay-away From: (1) ILB/OLB Alec Ogletree, Georgia; (1-2) Manti Te’o, Notre Dame; (4-5) Nico Johnson, Alabama
Why: Ogletree split time equally between safety, inside linebacker, under suspension and the injury list during his three seasons at Georgia. Some draft analysts are projecting Ogletree as an outside linebacker in the NFL, and his best position is likely as a 4-3 weakside linebacker, where his amazing closing speed could be best utilized. But he does not fit any position in the Steelers’ 3-4 defense. Te’o was the most overrated player in college football last season. He offers too little value to be drafted early, particularly with Foote signed for another three years. Johnson is a physically-limited player who lost playing time as the 2012 Alabama season progressed.
Returnees: Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown, Josh Victorian, DeMarcus Van Dyke
Off-season Additions: William Gay
Off-season Departures: Keenan Lewis (signed with New Orleans via free agency)
Position Analysis: Taylor saw his streak of 123 consecutive games started abruptly end due to a broken fibula that sidelined him for the final four weeks in 2012. That injury is not expected to limit Taylor for fall camp. Taylor, 32, remains in amazing shape and was performing at a Pro-Bowl level beforehand while matching up against the opponent’s top receiver each week. Taylor has already indicated a willingness to accept some type of paycut to finish his current contract with the Steelers in 2014. In his first season as a starter, Keenan Lewis led the NFL with 23 passes defended last fall, although he failed to record an interception. He will be missed. However, one positive of Taylor’s injury is that Cortez Allen got his first starting experience, where he showcased himself as potentially the Steelers’ best playmaker at corner since at least Deshea Townsend and possibly Rod Woodson. Starting three games and seeing action in the nickel all season, Allen had two interceptions and forced three fumbles. Allen should smoothly transition into a starting role. The return of “Big Play” William Gay on an inexpensive 2-year deal was a cost-effective move to replace Lewis. Gay is a proven nickleback, although he struggled as a starter. Curtis Brown, a third-round pick in 2011, has been a disappointment thus far. One reason for the return of Gay was that both Brown and Victorian struggled when given an opportunity at nickleback late in the 2012 season.
Potential Draft Targets (with rounds representing very good/great value in parentheses): (1) Xavier Rhodes, FSU; (2) Johnathan Banks, Mississippi State; (4) B.W. Webb, William & Mary, Logan Ryan, Rutgers and Jordan Pryor, Oregon State; (4-5) CB/FS Sanders Commings, Georgia; (6-7) Johnny Adams, Michigan State; (7) Micah Hyde, Iowa
Draft Strategy: The Steelers have brought in a slew of cornerbacks for pre-draft visits. However, this is not a pressing need, so do not expect Pittsburgh to address this spot before the fourth round. Fortunately, there should be several bigger, enticing cornerback prospects who fit the Steeler mold still on the board in the middle rounds.
Stay-away From: (3) Tyrann Mathieu, LSU
Why: Too many off-field problems, too much drama, poor NFL athleticism and not a great fit for the Pittsburgh defensive scheme.
Coming Later This Week:
Tuesday – The case for drafting Jarvis Jones at No. 17
Wednesday – Steelers Mock Drafts