For years, when the Pittsburgh Steelers defense has been mentioned, the first thing that usually comes to mind are all the great linebackers, and names, like Jack Lambert, Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter, James Harrison, and now, Ryan Shazier. Since Bill Cowher took over for Chuck Noll back in 1992, the linebackers have been the focal point of a physical defense with a furious pass rush, a tradition that continues under Mike Tomlin. Over the last few years, Tomlin has added two linebackers, Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree, who are not only big and physical, but are also uncommonly fast for their size. Each represents the future for the Steelers and a new breed of linebacker. What Tomlin needs to do in this draft is to find another pass rusher and a potential replacement for Lawrence Timmons. The Steelers are encouraging Timmons to test the free agency waters in order to gauge his value, although they hope to bring him back under a new deal for 2017.
The Steelers inconsistent linebacker play instantly stabilized when Bud Dupree (sports hernia) returned to action against Indianapolis on Thanksgiving Day. The expectation upon his return was that Dupree would need some time to shake off the rust from being out so long, instead, he looked like he was in midseason form. Dupree’s presence gave the Steelers another legitimate pass rushing threat, a boost to the run defense, and played a major role in the Steelers nine game winning streak that put them in the AFC Championship game. In just six regular season games, Dupree finished with 24 tackles, 4.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
Opposite of Bud Dupree is the ageless wonder, James Harrison (53 tackles, 5 sacks, 2 ff, and 1 interception), who is looking to return in 2017. It appears that his agent and the Steelers are close to making his return a reality. If this happens, the Steelers owe it to Harrison to protect him by finding ways to put him in positions to succeed. While that doesn’t necessarily mean putting him on a snap count, it means not asking him to drop back into coverage and allowing him to focus on what he is still very good at, rushing the quarterback and chasing down ball carriers. Going from his position into the offensive backfield, Harrison is still about as good as there is, but as for dropping into coverage, well, it just isn’t fair to expose him like that.
Ryan Shazier used the 2016 season to take his game to the next level and become a true team leader. With 87 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3 interceptions and 3 forced fumbles, Shazier was all over the field making countless plays that either helped seal games or change the momentum of them, including his interceptions in three straight games. As much as Shazier seemed to grow as a player this season, most of his potential has yet to be realized. Some of the plays he made this year were reminiscent of the kind that Troy Polamalu used to make at safety, and with another year in the system, we should continue to see even more of what makes Ryan Shazier one of the best in the game.
Last offseason the Steelers signed Vince Williams to a new contract because it seemed that Lawrence Timmons was beginning to show his age. Being 30 and coming off of a disappointing season are two strikes against any athlete, and Timmons is no exception. With the uncertain trajectory of Timmons’ career, the Steelers couldn’t afford to let Vince Williams get away, and while it was a good decision by the Steelers, Timmons seemed motivated by it. Slowed by an injury throughout 2015, he was unencumbered by them this past season and played like he was still in his mid 20’s. With 114 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and a forced fumble, Lawrence Timmons was a force in the middle once again. He was solid against the run and looked good in coverage as well, recording 2 interceptions.
The supporting cast
Behind the starters, the Steelers have several players who have provided the defense with quality snaps, and who are capable of being starters in other places. In three years of part time duty with the Steelers, Arthur Moats has racked up 79 tackles, 11.5 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles. On the occasions where he has gotten the start, Moats has played very well and has been very reliable as a result of his preparation and attention to detail. His signing may not have gotten the attention as those of James Farrior or Kevin Greene, but the importance of it is seen when he fills in for an injured starter.
Vince Williams is another backup linebacker who is starter capable. A big hitter, similar to former linebacker Earl Holmes, Williams plays with the intensity befitting a Steelers linebacker and is ready to step in for Lawrence Timmons if he leaves in free agency. In 2016 Vince Williams collected 47 tackles and 2 sacks. Another role that he will be filling this year is that of his brothers keeper. The Steelers have brought in his younger brother Karlos to compete for a running back job, after serving a 10 game suspension last season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
Tyler Matakevich and Anthony Chickillo are two young players who have the potential to be valuable contributors and work themselves into a starting role down the road. In college, Matakevich was a tackling machine who is now cutting his teeth on special teams. Technically sound, Matakevich looks a lot like Zach Thomas when he is on the field. Anthony Chickillo finished the season with 29 tackles, 2.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. With his size and speed, the hope is that maybe he can become the answer to who will line up opposite of Bud Dupree on opening day next year. He has a powerful bull rush, but adding another good move or two could only help him.
The Steelers have a real need for another outside pass rusher and will not ignore it in this up coming draft. While quite a few mock drafts have them selecting OLB Haason Reddick from Rutgers, there are a few who others who would be a nice fit, such as Alabama’s Ryan Anderson, T.J. Watt from Wisconsin, or Takkarist McKinley from UCLA. Every year there always seems to be that camp phenom who catches everyone’s attention, and rises out of nowhere to make the roster. What could possibly make for a better story than for the 6’3″/249 Akil Blount to become this years camp phenom. Why not him? He certainly has the tools and pedigree to do so, besides it would be nice to have a real Blount on the roster and not some quitter.