For the last few years there has been talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ aging defense. ESPN and NFL Network have made their cases the last few years as to why the aging Steelers’ defense would fall from grace, but the Steelers’ defense continues to come through. During the 2012 season the Steelers’ defense struggled compared to recent performances and they still ranked first in total defense and sixth in points per game.
Last off-season the Steelers lost three starters from the defense James Farrior, Aaron Smith, and William Gay as well as a long-time back-up in Chris Hoke. Those losses, combined with an aging core of players, had many concerned with the Steelers chances in 2012. Now an 8-8 season and the team missing the playoffs may seem to have proved the doubters right, but it was injuries and a lack of pass rush that derailed the Steelers in 2012.
Even with the players lost last off-season and older starters on defense the Steelers pass rush was still expected to be an area of strength. However, injuries to both James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley slowed both players and led a lack-luster season in terms of pressuring the quarterback. The other area the Steelers’ defense struggled in 2012 was in creating turnovers. Typically a good pass rush can help to force turnovers so the lack of pressure created by the Steelers’ defense in 2012 could be blamed for the lack of turnovers as well.
Fixing the pass rush will be the Steelers biggest concern this off-season. James Harrison was cut due to age and cap savings which leaves the Steelers with Jason Worilds and Woodley as the projected starters. Woodley has battled injuries the past two years, but is set on returning to form in 2013. He is already training in Arizona and preparing to return to being the player he was in the first half of the 2011 season when he was on pace to battle for the NFL defensive player of the year award.
As for Worilds he will be expected to fill a large hole left by Harrison on the right side of the Steelers defense. Worilds, a second round pick in 2010, will be looking at his first season as a full-time starter and he has plenty of doubters. However, it’s not his pass rushing ability that should be in question. In 2012 Worilds played the majority of the snaps in five games in place of an injured Woodley. In those five games he recorded four sacks. Average that out over a 16 game season and Worilds would have been expected to tally 13 sacks in 2012.
Even so, pressuring the quarterback will only be half of his job in 2013. It will also be up to Worilds to set the edge in the running game. As the right outside linebacker he will have to set the edge against every opponents left tackle, also known as some of the top offensive lineman in the league. This is the part of the game Worilds has struggled with the most when filling in for Woodley or Harrison. He has played better on the left side in place of Woodley, but in 2013 he will be on the right side. That means he will have to step up his game against the run or the Steelers could be in for a long season.
The other biggest veteran loss this off-season is nose tackle Casey Hampton. Hampton has held down the middle of the Steelers defense since 2001 and is considered one of, if not the, best nose tackles in football. However, he is closing in on his 36th birthday and Steve McLendon, Hampton’s back-up in 2012 was rated better by ProFootballFocus.com. In fact, McLendon was the highest rated nose tackle in the NFL in 2012 according to their grading system.
Therefore, replacing Hampton with McLendon could actually be an upgrade for the Steelers on defense rather than a downgrade as many expect. The Steelers also have tow young nose tackles on the roster behind McLendon. Alameda Ta’amu and Hebron Fangupo will likely battle in training camp for the back-up job behind McLendon and Ta’amu, if he can stay out of trouble off the field, was drafted to be the Steelers future nose tackle. The Steelers hopes for his future may be one of the reasons he wasn’t cut after his arrest in October.
Once again during the 2013 off-season the Steelers lost three starters a linebacker, corner, and defensive lineman. However, the loss of Keenan Lewis may be the biggest loss the team has suffered in recent years. Lewis had finally turned the corner in 2011 and became a very solid starter in 2012. Losing him in free agency will hurt, but the Steelers feel confident with Cortez Allen. They also brought back William Gay, who they never wanted to lose in the first place, and he is expected to be the Steelers nickel corner in 2013.
So there you have it the Steelers biggest losses this off-season and their replacements. Based on 2012 stats the Steelers may have actually improved their defense with these moves. They could also look to draft any of these three positions in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft to help solidify it. The other positive here is that the Steelers are getting younger on defense. They still need to find more playing time for Cameron Heyward on the defensive line as he was the top rated defensive end on the Steelers roster last season. In fact, had Heyward played the same amount of snaps as Brett Keisel he would have projected to have a much better statistical season than either Keisel of Ziggy Hood.
The Steelers biggest concern on defense heading into the 2013 season should be replacing Harrison and preparing their young players to take over on defense. If the team is not ready to start Worilds at outside linebacker they could look for a replacement in the first round of the NFL draft. They have also expressed interest in former-Cowboys linebacker Victor Butler. Butler actually was graded higher than all of the Steelers outside linebackers for the 2012 season and he is only 25.
Replacing Harrison should be the first order of business, unless the team believes that Worilds is ready to step in. After that the Steelers need to find depth at inside linebacker as well as at least one young safety. Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are getting older and 2013 may be the last season for each of them in Pittsburgh. If so the Steelers will need to have replacements ready, look for them to find those players during the draft in April. Another possible area of need in the draft is defensive line. The Steelers could look at nose tackle and defensive end in the draft.
Contrary to popular belief corner is not a major area of need for the Steelers this off-season. Yes the team lost Lewis to free agency, but they brought back Gay, who was exceptional during the 2011 season, and they also have Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown, Josh Victorian, DeMarcus Van **** and Justin King which gives them a ton of depth and potential at the corner back position.
Along with replacing Harrison at outside linebacker the other biggest concern for the Steelers defense heading into the 2013 season is staying healthy. Another season packed full of injuries will be hard for the team to overcome. LaMarr Woodley, Troy Polamalu, and Ike Taylor all missed extending periods due to injury in 2012; these three players will need to stay healthy in 2013 if the Steelers want to win the AFC North. Health, however, often has more to do with luck than preparation and after a few years ravaged by major injuries the Steelers are due for a healthy season.
Now some may disagree with me that the Steelers defense is not in shambles so if you believe there is a position or concern I have overlooked please post it in the comments below and I will add it to this article as an update.