Steel City Underground

Pittsburgh Steelers defense

Yes, it's early for this sort of thing, yet, even in May, it feels right to figure out who could be the opening day starters for the Steelers defense.

I came away with some surprises when I dug through the offensive starters last week. But one thing I didn't preface enough in that article is that this is a project for Week 1: not the entire season.

I do feel some of the younger players will get their chance. However, it may take some longer than others to become starters. Please keep that in mind as your mind is blown by who is in the starting lineup on the defensive side of the football.

POS Starter Backup Backup
LDE Cameron Heyward Tyson Alualu L.T. Walton
NT Javon Hargrave Daniel McCullers
RDE Stephon Tuitt Tyson Alualu L.T. Walton
LOLB Bud Dupree Arthur Moats Anthony Chickillo
LILB Ryan Shazier Tyler Matakevich
RILB Vince Williams Steven Johnson Keith Kelsey
ROLB T.J. Watt James Harrison Anthony Chickillo
Keion Adams
LCB Artie Burns Coty Sensabaugh Brian Allen
FS Mike Mitchell Robert Golden Jordan Dangerfield
SS Sean Davis Robert Golden William Gay
RCB Ross Cockrell Cameron Sutton

Defensive Line

Much like the Steelers offensive line, I don't see there being any changes on the defensive side of the ball. Cameron Heyward returns to his starting role along with Stephon Tuitt on the other end. Javon Hargrave was installed as a nose tackle and relief for Heyward and Tuitt as a rookie. He'll split time with the rotational aspect of his job with the newly signed Tyson Alualu, formerly of Jacksonville.

Letterius Walton proved to be a solid substitute when Heyward was injured and will be the backup behind Alualu. Dan McCuller rounds out the group as a big body used in goal line and special teams packages.

Linebackers

Vince Williams has patiently waited for his chance to take over for Lawrence Timmons and will receive his opportunity this season. Ryan Shazier was named to his first Pro Bowl and continues to grow into the big-time player the Steelers envisioned when he was drafted in 2014. Ditto for Bud Dupree who went on a tear after returning from IR in late 2016.

Those three linebackers are the de facto starters in the 3-4 scheme, however, the final spot could be up in the air. James Harrison just turned 39 years of age and will be used sparingly early in the season, just as he was last year.

I had made an argument for possibly playing Arthur Moats as the starter opposite Dupree for the opening month of the season, however, I believe T.J. Watt is going to get his shot right away. He was drafted to be the starter and he could be right away. The Steelers were forced to start Jarvis Jones and Moats early in the 2016 season after Dupree was hurt. Anthony Chickillo mixed in for about 15% of those snaps as well, but once Bud was back, it was all James Harrison and Dupree.

No one else came in. The linebacker rotation was dead.

Expect more of the same, with Harrison possibly being the "sprinkle" instead, and Dupree never leaving the field. Moats is a solid backup and Chickillo has experience, but primarily, it's the Dupree/Watt/Harrison show in 2017.

Keion Adams, a seventh-round draft pick, will make the 53-man roster and push for playing time with Chickillo. He'll likely earn his chops as a special teams guy this year. The same is also true of Keith Kelsey, an undrafted free agent who will be this year's Tyler Matakevich. I think the Steelers like Matakevich's potential enough to have him as a backup along with veteran Steven Johnson.

Yes, the inside linebacker position is filled with question marks, but the upside is definitely there. Hopefully Pittsburgh won't have to find out how good the "backups" are any time soon!

Secondary

The Steelers made a lot of moves this offseason, but most of those appear to be for depth or at least looking ahead past 2017.

Two rookie cornerbacks were drafted: Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen. I can't see either supplanting Ross Cockrell for the starting job right away, if at all. Cockrell has been a solid, underappreciated corner during his time in Pittsburgh. I think the Steelers feel they could lose him following 2017 (he was a restricted free agent his offseason) and prepared by taking Sutton and Allen. Cockrell will be the starter with last year's first-round draft pick Artie Burns manning the other side. 2016's second round choice Sean Davis will be a lock at strong safety while Mike Mitchell will play free safety. (Both were starters last season.)

The competition for playing time will occur at the slot corner spot, where a number of players have rotated in and out of the position over the last few seasons. Most of that was due to injuries. Senquez Golson was a second-round draft selection in 2015 who has never taken a snap. He has twice been hurt in training camp. I feel his days are numbered due to the Sutton pick and the signing of Coty Sensabaugh. Sensabaugh is capable of playing outside too and should be a backup to Burns, with Sutton having the same ability to play inside or out. The veteran edge will go to Coty starting as the nickel corner.

William Gay, last year's nickel corner, will stick to this roster by dabbling at safety and providing versatility in the event of an injury to one of the mainstays. His veteran leadership should help groom the younger players. Robert Golden is a special teams captain who will backup both Mitchell and Davis but could sense pressure by Jordan Dangerfield, who came up big in spot duty after being a practice squad lifer.

Conclusion

The 2016 draft set the Steelers in the right direction, with three starters looking to expand upon their year of pro experience (Burns, Davis, and Hargrave).

Add in at least one more starter from the 2017 class (and potentially more than one by the end of the season) and the defensive unit appears to be headed back to the dominance we're used to in the Steel City.





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