The Case for the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers: Part 4
by Ivan Cole
This may seem like I am contradicting myself, but after gushing over the stratospheric potential of the Steelers offense, I believe the most intriguing aspect of the 2016 squad may well be the defense.
Where the defense is at the start of the season, and more importantly, where they will be in the middle and the end is harder to read for a variety of reasons. We can begin with the global perspective.
The game has changed, and in certain respects the Steelers organization abandoned the more conservative approach to things, and have, instead, sought to find and function at the state of the art. On offense, with the game skewing more toward passing, and having the best quarterback out there anyway, they have stepped away from the run first approach that has characterized the franchise forever it seems. The defensive response to this is harder to ascertain because I believe that teams are still trying to figure it all out.
But it stands to reason that given its strong defensive tradition, Pittsburgh would be at the forefront of putting forward a solution. The need to be able to essentially defend ‘every blade of grass’ would place a premium on speed, conditioning and the ability to function autonomously (for example, the ability of one player to be able to both rush passers in one instance and defend receivers in another.)
Next there is the question of how the Butler/Tomlin approach to defense differs from that of their predecessor[s]. You would have to assume that 2015 was a somewhat transitional period. It is unclear if this season will merely be more of the same or the system continues to evolve into something that is a more distinct break from the past. Then, of course, is the evolution of players themselves both individually and collectively. In relation to this last point, it should be remembered that, like offensive line play, defense is ensemble work. In this sense the defense is even less likely than the offense to show its hand before the season begins in Washington, since the preseason is more about individual rather than group evaluation.
Another important aspect of the type of defense which would be effective in this era is depth. It is necessary to have more than one person capable of performing the varying functions within a defense competently, as well as have those who can function in the desired situational variations. The reasons would range from redundancies as insurance against injury to the ability to keep talent fresh. This facilitates optimal functioning as well as serving the purpose of injury prevention, since fatigue contributes to the susceptibility to injury.
The problem for the Steelers D line in 2015 was that they had two superior emerging players in Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, but little else behind them. There was also the challenge of replacing Steve McLendon in the middle. As of now they appear to be tantalizingly close to ‘mission accomplished’ in this regard.
The superlatives extended to Maurkice Pouncey on the offensive side as both a talent and a leader equally apply to Cam Heyward. Having said that though, the player appearing to be on the most surefire trajectory to superstardom would be Stephon Tuitt. [The picture at the head of the article is from Cam Heyward’s website. He and Tuitt were on The Fan, debating with the hosts whether Tuitt is really Superman…]
Add to this foundation the player who appears to be the most impressive acquisition from the 2016 draft, tackle Javon Hargrave. Hargrave seems poised to be the first player at this position in a decade and a half to step into extensive playing time, perhaps even a starting position. And his skill set is such that he brings the possibility of being a three down player.
If this is the case, then the bar for the others on depth chart would tend to lower significantly. I am thinking specifically of Daniel McCullers, who could be used in more specialized ways if Hargrave can step in immediately. I, and maybe others, feared that Ricardo Mathews might be little more than Cam Thomas 2.0, but now believe he can add more than that.
For literally decades the success and effectiveness of the defensive line was measured by how well they set the table for the performance of the linebackers. The current group in the emerging system hold the potential of being the headliners of the defense on their own. In the worst case they would be co-equals to the linebackers. This is something Steelers Nation hasn’t seen in quite some time.