Steelers ‘X’ Factors for 2016: Defense

Matt Freed—Post-Gazette

by Ivan Cole

Here’s Part II of my off-season speculations. (For Part I click here.) As noted in the previous article, the rules are simple:

The players I select could be in the conversation as key factors in the team’s success, but are probably not at this time. They can be anyone from established superstars to non-drafted newcomers (admittedly a tougher call, but a good part of the fun). This exercise is undertaken with the understanding that injuries and unanticipated personnel moves could radically alter the assumptions and landscape of the discussion, and that the conversation will evolve as the season progresses and more information is forthcoming.

As usual, please feel free to add your thoughts below.Defensive Line

Daniel McCullers. He is my inspiration for this entire exercise. On the second day of the draft, defensive line coach John Mitchell is meeting with the media. He spends the entire press conference gushing about third round draft pick Javon Hargrave. This is significant to me because Mitchell is not one given to hyperbole, so what he’s saying about this rookie is kind of exciting. But then he drops this toward the end of the conversation.

“You’re going to see a different Dan McCullers. I’m really pleased..” Hmmm.

First of all, let’s recognize that with, among other factors, the evolution of the game offensively, the impact of safety factors on how it is played particularly on the defensive side of the ball, and the departure of Dick LeBeau, it is not just the players but the entire defensive concept of the Steelers that is changing. Jim Wexall, Bob Labriola and others have been speculating that the Steelers D is morphing into something new. Maybe a 3- 3, or some modernized version of the Tampa 2. One thing that is already clear from 2015 is that the role of the defensive linemen is different. No longer are they focused on run defense and setting up the linebackers for their heroics in the pass rush, they are expected to do more.

Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are the big established stars here. The assumption has been that with how the sub packages have been evolving that the play on the interior defensive line has been deemphasized. That would seem in the minds of some why Steve McLendon was allowed to walk. However, most of Mitchell’s remarks concerning Hargrave were that he could function as a three down player. So what if they allowed McLendon to walk because they anticipate a breakout by McCullers?

One more thing. When he came to the Steelers, the fan mindset on McCullers was that of the freakishly large man child who could make a huge difference. He was replaced in the hearts of Steelers Nation by one with a similar pedigree, offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva. But the potential for even greater things from Big Dan is still there. As a raw young player he is virtually unblockable once he gets going. If he is on the verge of mastering the nuance and techniques of his position, then the possibilities for the defensive line are frightening regardless of what Hargrave (and don’t forget LT Walton yet) can contribute.


Ross Cockrell. He was arguably the best performer at this position in 2015 in spite of the fact that he did not spend one moment in the off season program or in training camp. So what happens now that he (a player that the team had their eye on previously but couldn’t obtain) has put in some time in the system? Do you think a leap is possible? With all due respect to the potential of Artie Burns, Senquez Golson and Doran Grant, Cockrell may be the main reason that Cortez Allen, Brandon Boykin and Antwon Blake are no longer with the team.


Mike Mitchell. He hasn’t been healthy and he hasn’t had much help. So what happens if he has both? An improving Robert Golden, an emerging Sean Davis and anything you can get at all from Shamarko Thomas and some remarkable things might be possible with this guy.


Outside Linebacker

Bud Dupree. If he is healthy and clearly under pressure to be fighting for a contract here or elsewhere, I wouldn’t be surprised to get something of a breakout season for Jarvis Jones. With this almost certainly his last hurrah, I wouldn’t be surprised with a great season from James Harrison. But I was surprised how well Dupree did in his first season, and chances are good that he makes a very significant leap this year.

Inside Linebacker

Vince Williams. All the other storylines are elsewhere. Ryan Shazier could emerge into superstar status. What to do with Lawrence Timmons? Tyler Matakevich is easy to root for as is Jordan Zumwalt. But the likely breakout story for me would be Williams. He won’t overshadow Shazier or Timmons, but he is in position to make a difference.



  • roxannafirehall

    I am bullish on this defense. It is young, stocked with character guys, and guys who have scrapped their way to playing time . . . Gay, Cockrell, Williams, Jones (yes, Jones) and Moats. Harrison too. If the first and second year players follow their leaders, the defense will continue to improve, as it did last year.

    Nice overview of how the newer guys may fit in.


  • An example of how a personnel move changes the equation is the re-acquisition of tight end David Johnson. I have been a fan of D. Johnson and when he was in competition with Will Johnson I thought DJ was the winner. His return not only alters the dynamics of the tight end situation, particularly for Spaeth, but could also create some competitive pressure for Roosevelt Nix at the fullback position.


  • Ivan – I’m on board with almost all of the ideas that you have put out…wonderful “food for thought” and ” think of the possibilities”! But…I need to quibble some with your first statement on CB…I can’t agree that Cockrell was better than Willie G. However, your last statement in that section seems to be spot on! Nice analysis!


    • I wouldn’t be inclined to consider him about Gay either. But I do recall there being some rankings that suggested such. In any case, given the quality of Gay’s work the last few years, for this to be a topic of reasonable debate is a good thing, right? Especially given Cockrell’s potential upside.


      • I remember the bad old days when Gay was bad-mouthed worse than Attilla the Hun. He was never that bad and I am uncertain that he is all that good now. But…I saee it as a good thing that there appears to be less disparity between him and whomever is deemed #2 or #3.


  • I am really interested in how this defense is evolving.
    I’m excited to see how they use McCullers, and also how they use Travis Feeney.

    I think Sean Davis is the #1 X-factor, he has incredible athleticism and versatility, if he can play it will be very interesting to see what they do with him and Shazier.


  • Chick…..I think he breaks out and takes Jarvis Jones spot.


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