Taken from the grade book of a teacher began the year by telling his students that he expected them to outperform the low expectations that others had for them, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Defensive Report Card.
2015 marked a new era on the Steelers defensive line, as it was the first time since 2000 that a Smith, a Hampton, or Keisel was not a start on the defensive line. 2015 also saw John Mitchell’s long standing practice of rotating defensive lineman taper off. Cameron Heyward stepped forward as a leader of the Steelers defense, and he did it with authority registering 7 sacks and 55 tackles. Stephon Tuitt was not far behind, with six and half sacks. Steve McLendon had a quieter year, but the Steelers improve run defense does not come unless he is playing well.
While the trio of Heyward, Tuitt and McLendon provided Steelers Nation with a lot to like, not much can be said of the men playing behind them. Daniel McCullers played 105 snaps – up from 63 a year ago, but that pales to compared to the 216 snaps that Al Woods logged in 2013. Cam Thomas saw his snap percentage drop from 44.9% to a mere 16.9%, and rookie L.T. Walton only logged 29 snaps.
- Heyward’s snap count was close to 90% and Tuitt’s was just under 80%.
It’s doubtful that Tomlin, Bulter and Mitchell would have played both men so much had they the luxury of rotating someone else in. Overall, the performance of the Steelers defensive line was very good, but Steelers defense came up flat whenever they couldn’t pressure the passer, and the defensive line must shoulder some of that responsibility. Grade: B+
The Pittsburgh Steelers linebacking corps boasted four 1st round draft picks for the first time in franchise and possibly league history. Lawrence Timmons continued to lead this group and arguably had his best seasons since2012. Ryan Shazier came into his own, from his breakout game vs. San Francisco, to his stellar performance late in the season and in the playoffs.
Regarding the Steelers outside linebackers, Bud Dupree showed promise in his first year in the NFL. Three years into his NFL career, Jarvis Jones remains somewhat of a mystery. Coaches are always at great pains to point out how well he’s playing in pass coverage, but he still only added 2 sacks to his career total. By comparison, Arthur Moats managed 4 sacks and was more involved in creating turnovers.
- James Harrison‘s showed that he certainly had something left in the tank – and then some.
Overall the grade of the Steelers linebackers must reflect the fact that they until was generally good, but not quite consistent tough to be considered as something special. Grade: B
The Steelers accidental secondary is one of the most maligned units in franchise history, perhaps since the days of Lupe Sanchez and John Swain. While the Steelers secondary can in no way be considered a team strength, some of that criticism is slightly overboard.
On the positive side, Mike Mitchell had an excellent year, and vindicated the Steelers decision to make him into a priority-free agent signing. William Gay again showed he was probably, dollar-for-dollar, the NFL’s best cornerback. Will Allen also continued to make plays and Robert Golden looked solid in relief.
Antwon Blake has been the target of both fans and media criticism, and his poor tackling technique hurt the team on a number of occasions. In fairness to Blake, he’s probably a number 4 or number 3 corner who shouldn’t be starting. Ross Cockrell was a nice edition to the secondary, and has a nose for the ball. Brandon Boykin did what was asked of him.
When the Steelers front seven got pressure on the quarterback, the Steelers showed they could win with the secondary. Moreover, the secondary showed it could translate pressure upfront into turnovers. But without this support up front, the Steelers secondary was vulnerable. Grade: C
Part I of our Steelers 2015 Report Card series graded the Steelers offense.
Part III will grade the Steelers 2015 special teams, coaches and name the Unsung Hero.