Steelers ‘X’ Factors for 2016: Defense
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:
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.
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.
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.