Much attention has been given to the fate of the Steelers offense so far just a few weeks into this off-season and for good reason. There’s a whole lot going on in the offense from the coordinator to the running back. But what’s to become of the number one ranked defense in the off-season to come? We’ve already seen one retirement and some cuts made. Who will stay and who will go and what changes can be made to right the wrongs of this season?
The “old, slow, and done” defense ended last year with the number one overall ranking despite being last in turnovers and very low on sacks, which is very uncharacteristic for this bunch. Also uncharacteristic for LeBeau’s defense was the rushing yards allowed this season. The team allowed an average 99.8 rushing yards a game, but virtually suffocated offenses by allowing only an average 171.9 passing yards and 14.2 points. Unfortunately, there were some key drives allowed that led to the downfall of the Steelers season.
Already gone from the 2012 team are Chris Hoke and Bryant McFadden. With the retirement of Hoke, and the injuries to Hampton and Smith, the D-line could look very different this season. Smith has already stated that he wants to come back this season but after spending the past two seasons on IR, the Rooney’s have another difficult decision on whether or not to keep him and his salary on the roster. Also in question is Hampton, who had ACL surgery at the start of the off-season, will most likely start training camp on the PUP list. We’re all used to seeing Big Snack start training camp on the PUP list anyway, though. He’s always the first to pull a hammy in Latrobe; you can almost set your clock to it. There’s no one currently on the roster who could really take over Hampton’s spot at NT though. Steve McLendon doesn’t really have the size, but is more similar to Hokie’s size so that might be the best option. The 3-4 defense depends on the front line powering through the offensive line and allowing the linebackers to reach the quarterback easily. This didn’t happen a whole lot this season, as sacks were way lower than usual.
The LB crew might have some different faces as well. Long-time Steelers LB James Farrior, who just finished his 15th season, could be another salary cap casualty. With the injuries to Woodley and Harrison this season, the LB crew was always being adjusted and Lawrence Timmons played damn near every spot. Farrior had a solid season, ending up 4th on the team in tackles. Often referred to as the “emotional leader” of the defense, I’m inclined to think that he will be brought back to be the other ILB with Timmons. Like Ward, I just can’t picture James Farrior in anything else but Black & Gold.
Another defensive area that is likely to have some turnover is the secondary. With Rooney II stating that no FA will be signed before the FA period begins, we will most likely lose William Gay to another team. Despite sometimes unwarranted criticism, in my opinion Gay had an outstanding year along with Ike Taylor. The future does look bright, however with the secondary with the standout play of Keenan Lewis this season. Even though the team did not rack up the turnovers, the suffocating pass defense shows that the secondary was on fire this year. Outside of a few heartbreaking plays, the secondary hardly gave up big plays and kept receivers in check for the majority of the season.
It seems rather deceptive to me that the Steelers defense ended up number 1 with such low numbers in turnovers and sacks. I know that you don’t need turnovers or sacks to win games but there’s one drive in particular that haunted me the entire season and will continue to until the next matchup. You know which one I’m talking about, the 92 yard drive the Steelers gave up to the Ravens in a game that turned out to be the difference in winning the division or playing the Wild Card game. That drive, to me, killed the Steelers season. If there had been more pressure on Flacco, he would have been stopped at the 4th and 1 they went for and the pass to Torrey Smith in the back of the endzone never happens. I’m used to a Steelers defense that completely harasses quarterbacks and creates a brick wall blocking rushers trying to gain yards. Neither of those happened a whole lot this season and both of those things could be the difference of success for the upcoming season.
The highlights of the upcoming season is that LaMarr Woodley should return completely healthy after spending the majority of the season on the sidelines with a hamstring injury and never seemed to return to full strength afterwards. The combination of Woodley and Harrison taking aim at the quarterbacks in the league warms my heart n’at. I’d look for the draft picks this year to include more defensive linemen and cornerbacks. I’ve heard the position of NT being one of the biggest draft needs, while others will say its cornerback. Either way, a return to the stingy run defense while still maintaining the impressive pass defense will be what this Steeler fan will be looking forward to next season. Also, lots and lots of sacks, especially on Flacco.
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