It does not take a very astute person to see that the overall play of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense has rapidly declined in recent seasons. Many like Warren Sapp have blamed “age” as the main factor behind the unit’s poor performance, and those people are correct to a certain degree.
However, another big factor behind the struggles of Pittsburgh’s defense also has to do with the amount of inexperienced players who have started to see the field as of late.
While rookies under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau are usually relegated to the bench and special teams units during their first seasons in Pittsburgh, injuries and poor play have pressed three of Pittsburgh’s 2013 draft picks into the lineup already this fall.
Three Rookies Receiving Significant Reps
Jarvis Jones, the team’s first round selection, has usurped Jason Worilds on the depth chart at right outside linebacker and received a bulk of the reps at the position since the Steelers’ second game of the season.
While Jones has flashed his ability to be a terror off the edge at times with big hits, his lack of strength and inability to put consistent pressure on opposing signal-callers (0 sacks so far) has definitely hurt Pittsburgh’s defense.
Rookie safety Shamarko Thomas (along with second year safety Robert Golden) has already been pressed into duty at safety and cornerback this fall for the Steleers. A big-hitter who has actually shined on special teams, Thomas has showed his inexperience at times like Jones and was responsible for Earl Bennett’s back-breaking touchdown catch during the fourth quarter of Pittsburgh’s loss to Chicago.
While Jones and Thomas were at least expected to see the field in some spot duty this fall, nobody envisioned Vince Williams lining up at the “buck” spot at left inside linebacker at all. Due to Foote’s season-ending biceps injury, Williams has seen the field for large chunks of Pittsburgh’s last three games.
To his credit, the former Florida State Seminole has usurped Kion Wilson on the depth chart. However, the rookie is still raw, is inconsistent with his tackling and taking proper angles, and needs work when it comes to covering the pass. To be fair to Williams, he probably needs another year or two of development before he can realize his full potential.
Inexperienced Older Players
To be fair to the rookies, they are not the only inexperienced players who must adapt to extended reps. Other more veteran members of Pittsburgh’s defense are finally starting to see the field for longer stretches of time this fall as well.
Along the defensive line, Steve McLendon and Cameron Heyward, who had logged a combined one start in the previous two seasons, have emerged as the team’s starting nose tackle and top defensive end in the rotation.
While both have displayed competency with gap-shooting like McLendon (17 tackles overall) and batting down passes like Heyward (three overall), they are still emerging as starters after years of riding the pine.
In addition to those two along the defensive line, cornerback Cortez Allen and outside linebacker Jason Worilds have also seen time than they have during their first few seasons at the professional level. Both Allen and Worilds have struggled during their stints in the lineup, and both definitely have work to do if they wish to adequately replace Keenan Lewis and James Harrison.
As it stands, the Steelers rank 29th in rushing yards allowed, tied for last in sacks, 24th in points per game allowed, and have forced zero turnovers!
Although the decline of veterans like Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, and Brett Keisel are definitely reasons why this defense has suffered, the younger and inexperienced players have also factored into this unit’s recent demise.
If changes come to Pittsburgh this offseason, then they will not only have to fight for future playing time, but their jobs with the franchise in general.
With that in mind, it will be “sink or swim” time for these inexperienced players during the next 12 weeks.
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