All eyes at St. Vincents are on Pittsburgh’s position battles at safety, inside linebacker, and running back. But in many ways, the die has already been cast, with the true test at this Steelers training camp will be of Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s ability to evaluate defensive talent.
- The Pittsburgh Steelers post-Super Bowl rebuilding phase has been over for some time.
Ben Roethlisberger is the only veteran who remains from Super Bowl XLIII. Only Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey and Antonio Brown remain from Super Bowl XLV. The Pittsburgh Steelers have steadily improved since their nightmare 2-6 start to the 2013 season, and with each season they’ve gotten closer to climbing the Stairway to Seven.
- Progress crashed to an abrupt halt last January in the playoff loss to the Jaguars.
And the reason for Pittsburgh’s painful playoff exit can be pinned squarely on the Steelers defense, who got manhandled at Heinz Field for a second straight time by Jacksonville. The loss sent Steelers Nation reeling, with no shortage of Black and Gold faithful seeking blood. One Twitter exchange is particularly instructive:
— Steel Curtain Rising (@SteelCurtainRis) January 31, 2018
It might seem a bit contradictory to run a blog post questioning the Steelers collective defensive talent evaluation skills, but it is not. Losing Ryan Shazier was a game-changer for the Steelers in 2017. Everyone accepts that. Now.
But what people forget is that the Steelers decision to draft Ryan Shazier was a questionable one and many fans were labeling Shazier a “bust” as recently as 2016. In a similar vein, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin clearly made the right choices when it came to Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Vince Williams (remember the guy was a 6th round pick) and Joe Haden.
- But Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have swung and missed on the defensive rebuild.
And those misses have carried real costs. Missing on a premium pick requires you to redraft for the same position, forcing you to forgo talent elsewhere.
Shamarko Thomas never contributed outside of special teams, forcing the Steelers to invest another premium pick on Sean Davis. Jarvis Jones qualifies as the first unquestioned first round bust of Kevin Colbert’s tenure, and that move led the Steelers to draft Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt.
If you look at the key position battles that will be fought out on the fields of St. Vincents this summer, they either involve redrafts or highlight questions about key defensive talent acqusitions. Consider:
- The Steelers are swapping T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, in a bid to jump start Dupree’s pass rush
- Sean Davis is moving to free safety after starting for two years at strong safety
- Artie Burns enters training camp as the incumbent starter at corner, but Cam Sutton could challenge
Then stir in the battle at inside linebacker. Tyler Matakevich and free agent Jon Bostic will vie to “replace” Ryan Shazier. Matakevich is a fan favorite, an inside linebacker in the mold of Jerry Olsavsky. The sentimentally is nice, but fails to compensate for athleticism. Bostic looks like a serviceable player – when healthy.
The Steelers coaching staff seems to understand that neither player offers the athleticism needed in the middle of the field. Talk of deploying sub packages that use Morgan Burnett and/or Terrell Edmunds in some sort of hybrid safety-inside linebacker position dominated the off season.
- As others have observed, fans clamored for Ryan Shazier to switch to safety; now the Steelers are using safeties to try to replace him.
It is important to remember that the Steelers 2017 defense actually looked pretty good at times, broaching shut down level against Kansas City and Cincinnati and playing really tough in the Red Zone against Detroit. Ryan Shazier was a key player in making that happen, but he didn’t do it himself.
- By sticking to their board and refusing to reach for defensive in the 2018 NFL Draft Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin implicitly acknowledge that.
If nothing else, the duo is being true to themselves, as they’ve never made personnel decisions of fear. Now its time to see how whether their self-confidence is justified or not.