Do you Remember when Warren Sapp called the Steelers defense “old and slow”, and how offended everyone seemed to get over that statement? Do you also remember how rookies barely saw the field because of “how difficult” it was to grasp Dick LeBeau’s system? As great of a man as LeBeau was, and as great as his defenses were, the downfall of his system was that it wasn’t conducive for retaining or playing the young quality talent behind the starters. It always seemed that those talented players, looking for an opportunity to start somewhere, left as free agents. That problematic cycle, made worse by the Steelers inability to replace those players through the draft, resulted in a defense that truly did grow old and slow.
The defense was no longer capable of carrying the team, and changes needed to be made, which became painfully evident following a 2011 wild card playoff loss to Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos. It was widely assumed that a return to Super Bowl contention meant a trip through the dark ages first. Up to that point, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin hadn’t faired too well in the draft, rarely finding talent beyond the third round. For a team that believes in building through the draft like the Steelers do, Colbert and Tomlin were going to have to figure out how to find the success that Bill Cowher usually had.
Just how low was their success rate at picking out fresh talent? Out of Colbert and Tomlin’s first six drafts (2007-2012), only six players remain on the roster. Minus a retiree and a few free agent defections, the rest of their picks have washed out of the league entirely. During that same period of time, only three players from beyond the third round have made legitimate contributions on the field, Willie Gay, Antonio Brown, and Kelvin Beachum. As unsuccessful as the first six years of their drafts were, it looks like Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have found their formula for success over the last four.
From the 2013-2016 drafts, the Steelers have rebuilt themselves back into Super Bowl contenders on the fly, with over 33% of the current roster made up of players from those drafts. While Colbert and Tomlin were surrounding Ben Roethlisberger with the most explosive talent in the NFL, they also managed to find seven new starters on defense, including three who were rookies last season. They have also gotten significant contributions from four backups drafted in either the sixth or seventh round. A significant factor that shouldn’t be forgotten during this astonishing transformation, is new defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s simplification of the defense.
Keith Butler’s decision to condence the playbook and simplify the terminology has allowed these young players to get on the field almost immediately, and to make the contributions that helped get the Steelers back in the AFCC Game for the first time since 2011. As a result of Butler’s change in philosophy, the Steelers not only field one of the youngest and bigger defenses in the NFL, but one of the fastest as well. The youth, size, freakish speed, and athleticism of the Steelers defense has them once again being one of the most feared units in the NFL. All that is missing now, minus a part of two, is the experience.
On paper it looks like the Steelers had another solid draft in 2017, headlined by OLB T.J. Watt, WR JuJu Smith-Shuster, CB Cameron Sutton, and RB James Conner. While it’s far too early for putting an accurate grade on their most recent draft, it will certainly be an “A” if the Steelers top 4 picks come in and contribute immediately, especially if they can get some production out of 6’3″/215lb cornerback Brian Allen. Either way, when you consider how far the Steelers have come since that playoff loss in Denver, without ever falling below 8-8, it’s been a pretty amazing accomplishment. What’s even more amazing is that Warren Sapp was actually right about that Steelers team…unfortunately, it’s the only time he’s ever been right.