Taken from the grade book who experienced the bittersweet moment of seeing several of his older students reach or near the moment of graduating on to “Life’s work,”while taking in enough joy to see some of their replacements budding into maturity, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 Report Card for the defense. Note, these are grades for the entire season, not a composite of each week’s report cards.
This unit saw some real firsts for a Johnny Mitchell defensive line with not one but two rookies make starts in the form of Daniel McCullers and Stephon Tuitt. While neither could be called a “rookie sensation” both played well and showed a lot of promise heading into 2015. The same cannot be said for Cam Thomas, who quite frankly struggled at defensive end, and while better at nose tackle, got pushed around. Steve McLendon make much noise statistically, but McLendon returned full time to the lineup for the season’s final four games and that’s when the Steelers defense played its best ball. Those two facts are not coincidental. Brett Keisel rejoined the team as a last minute edition, and while it took time to work himself into football shape, it was clear that The Beard, still had plenty in the tank. Indeed one could argue that Keisel’s pass defense-interception vs. Houston was the play that turned the Steelers season around. The shining start of the unit was Cameron Heyward, who recorded 7.5 sacks, tying Jason Worilds for the team lead. Heyward might have started the year a little slow, maybe, by year’s end he was the veritable hell raiser that this team needed him to be. Grade: B
Things didn’t quite pan out as projected here, as Jarvis Jones, 2013’s first round draft pick, and Ryan Shazier spent large portions of the season on the inactive list due to injury. James Harrison and Arthur Moats filled in admirably for Jones, and the defense was at its most dangerous when Harrison teased at turning back the clock. In place of Shazier, both Sean Spence and Vince Williams filled in admirably giving Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler a good problem to have. Jason Worilds didn’t quite match his sack production of 2013, but he was rushed less often and had a solid season. Lawrence Timmons was this unit’s leader and continued to lead by example, making plays when needed. Although it was an overall strong year from the linebackers, lack of a consistent pass rush brings this grade down. Grade: B-
The Steelers had hoped that Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu had enough left to lead the Steelers secondary for one final year. Unfortunately, and this is as brutal as it sounds, the Steelers defense played at its best when both men were out injured at the end of the season. Cortez Allen’s season was an unmitigated disaster, and his reclamation project should keep Keith Bulter, Carnell Lake, and Mike Tomlin late into the night. On the flip side, William Gay played far better than anyone had a right to expect. You don’t get 3 pick sixes in the NFL by accident. Brice McCain and Antwon Blake were surprises. Perhaps, at the end of the day, both men were in fact below average talents playing above their heads and perhaps they came down to earth. But both men stepped up and created turnovers at critical times during the regular season, and they deserve credit for that. Even if you take those positives into account, the secondary was the Steelers big weak link in to 2014. Grade: C-