Steel City Underground

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier
steelers.com

There's one narrative floating around various Steelers forums that's starting to annoy me this offseason. That narrative is that the team failed to address defensive "problems".

What if I told you that's a bold-faced lie espoused by those upset that Pittsburgh didn't select Ryan Shazier's clone in the 2018 NFL Draft?

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Well, that's partially true too. First, Ryan Shazier didn't have a clone in this year's draft. The closest the Steelers could've come to drafting a replacement for the injured linebacker would've been taking Tremaine Edmunds, Leighton Vander Esch, or Rashaan Evans with their first-round pick.

The problem: none of those players were available when the Steelers were on the clock. In fact, the Buffalo Bills moved up six picks to grab Edmunds while the Tennesse Titans moved up three spots to select Evans. Between those picks, Dallas drafted Vander Esch, leaving any other inside linebacker to pick a definitive reach when Pittsburgh came around at pick 28.

A few more linebackers dotted the landscape in rounds two and three, going before or after the Steelers choices. My question is, would you have rather had a player who was a conversion project (from outside to inside linebacker) or James Washington?

As a casual observer, do you like the Mason Rudolph pick? If yes, then you can't have it both ways and ask for a linebacker there either. With no fourth or sixth-round selections, the pickings were also slim. But the Steelers already knew this prior to the draft. That's why the made several moves prior.

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The first of those moves was signing inside linebacker Jon Bostic. Admittedly, Bostic isn't a "sexy" signing, but the Steelers legitimately didn't have the cap space to lure other players to Pittsburgh, nor was the free agent market for the position overflowing with potential fits. Bostic does provide an upgrade over Sean Spence, who was only signed when Shazier's backup, Tyler Matakevich, also went down to an injury around the same time.

And that's another thing which is lost when discussing a "broken" defense: losing Shazier and his backup. Shazier was the equivalent of a quarterback on the defensive side of the ball. If fans already cringe at the thought of Landry Jones stepping in for Ben Roethlisberger, then my point should be clear.

It becomes even more clear when you don't have a Josh Dobbs option, that is, someone that's the third string play-caller on that side of the ball.

That's why I get irritated when fans make claims about the Steelers defense being "pathetic". Did they think this before or after Shazier went down?

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I ask because Shazier was having an incredible season, as was the D. However that all went to Hell when Shazier and Matakevich both went down around the same time. So what's a team to do in December when they lose their starter and backup?

Sean Spence wasn't good, we all know that, but he's what was available. Communication became an issue in the latter weeks of the season and was compounded by his lack of ability and a failed attempt to convert Arthur Moats to playing from outside to inside.

That's why Bostic may be the best short-term answer at inside linebacker while Shazier attempts a comeback. If Shazier returns, you have to wonder if an Evans or Vander Esch would be sent to the bench in 2019, or if the team would move on from Vince Williams. Therefore, "replacing" Shazier at this moment in time is a difficult proposition.

Revamping the secondary is not. In fact, the additional changes further address the soft middle of the field area that was a liability after Shazier went on IR.

Pittsburgh dropped safeties Mike Mitchell, Robert Golden, and eventually, J.J. Wilcox from the roster this offseason. They also said goodbye to defensive backs coach Carnell Lake and long-time defensive line coach John Mitchell.

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Those weren't the only changes, as the team added four new safeties to the roster by signing two free agents (Morgan Burnett and Nat Berhe) plus drafting two others (Terrell Edmunds and Marcus Allen).

Burnett can play anywhere in the secondary and offers position flexibility while Berhe is projected to be a special teams upgrade over Golden. Edmunds appears to be an athlete in the vein of Shazier and could be his actual successor with a suspected change in defensive schemes, while Allen looks like the old school hard-hitting player of Pittsburgh's past.

These tweaks are layered upon a defense which broke a franchise record for and led the NFL in sacks last season. Upfront, they have Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt entrenched in their positions, with similar styled outside linebackers Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt further adding to the versatility defensive coordinator Keith Butler may be aiming for.

Combine all of the above with a deep cornerback rotation featuring Joe Haden as the top option and former top option Artie Burns as the second DB who will roam along the boundary. Inside, Mike Hilton proved his value as a slot corner and Cam Sutton enters his second season with the promise of being just as good.

Not mentioned in the conversation so far are returning starters, Vince Williams and Javon Hargrave. Counting them into the fray means the Steelers may only have one or two fresh faces in the starting lineup, which figure to be Bostic and Burnett in the early going. Barring any setbacks, that's a good outlook for any team, especially when the new pieces appear to be upgrades.

Depending on how Edmunds progresses and is utilized, he could add yet another wrinkle on that side of the football.

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In all, the four new safeties and the extra added linebacker appear to be a total of five new pieces added to the Steelers defense. Along with two new position coaches, and everything else mentioned throughout this article, it does appear the team made a very conscious effort to address defense this offseason.

Compared with the offense, who may also add one to two new players (second-round pick James Washington is one, the other is depending on Le'Veon Bell) there are very few holes the team had to address. Making picks for the future, including the quarterback position and offensive line, appear to position the team for both "winning now" and "winning later".

Therefore, the hysteria over "wasted picks" and even Big Ben's own comments about drafting Mason Rudolph, are making a meal of nothing at this point. There's always the possibility that these moves don't work out, and that's just the nature of professional football.

However, I can't in good faith believe that the organization would make moves that wouldn't help improve their situation...





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  1. VinHudd says:

    Good article Joe. Personally, and if ya happen to remember me debating you about using the 28th pick on Rudolph months ago lol, I’m almost ecstatic with Mason being the 3rd rd selection. Washington w/the 2nd rd I didn’t see coming but was maybe even happier with that pick than Mason in the 3rd.

    • Joe Kuzma says:

      First rounder? No way.

      Third rounder? Hell yeah!

      And Washington was falling in my mock drafts, but like LVE, didn’t think there was any chance he’d actually be there in the 2nd. Thrilled with that pick. Saw him on the board still and said “oh please!” LOL

  2. Great read Joe. Great points of emphasis too. I concur. Although I must say, the first two days of the draft I was thinking….. “What in the living f***?”

    As I read more and thought more about the selections — and particularly about the essence of this article — it all began to make much more sense.

    • Joe Kuzma says:

      I can’t pretend that the Edmunds pick didn’t catch me off guard, but that’s the beauty in all of this.

      At least the James Washington and Mason Rudolph picks were nice and somewhat expected surprises.

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