View Full Version : Steelers Defensive Breakdown in Preparing for 2012 NFL Draft

01-20-2012, 05:23 PM
Steelers Defensive Breakdown in Preparation for the 2012 NFL Draft

by Neal Coolong on Jan 20, 2012

In order to help identify that player (or even if a trade scenario is possible), we must break down every aspect of the team and assess its needs from a personnel perspective.

After watching each game again, and evaluating the development of each position, I'll highlight each positional grouping, starting with the defense.

Defensive Line

Draft possibilities: NT Dontari Poe, NT Michael Brockers, NT Devon Still

Easily the group called into question most often by draft pundits. ESPN's Mel Kiper's first mock draft had the Steelers taking a nose tackle at 24. That's not a bad call, considering veteran Casey Hampton blew his knee out in the Steelers playoff game, and is scheduled to make $7 million next year.

Odds are very good 2011 was Hampton's last year as a Steeler. The team will almost certainly ask him to take a paycut to remain with the team, and Hampton isn't likely to agree to it, considering he could still get relatively close to that $7 million next year (the last of the three year deal he signed before the 2010 season) somewhere else. That decision, though, gets a bit murkier considering Hampton's long-standing back-up Chris Hoke had neck surgery this season. Going into the year with Steve McLendon (not the run-stopper Hampton is) and no back-up is a risky proposition. They are going to want a veteran to at least back McLendon up.

The likely retirement of Aaron Smith will officially make Ziggy Hood the starter, although he's basically started the last two seasons. Hood struggled in parts of the season, and he will need to improve if the Steelers are to remain a top-flight defensive team. Brett Keisel had a Pro Bowl level season, and will be the anchor of the line.

Heyward is still raw, and is learning his position, but his improvement from his first snap of the season to the last was outstanding. He will likely fill Hood's back-up role in 2012.

Nose tackle will be labeled a position of need in this draft, and very well could be the direction the Steelers go at 24.


Draft Possibilities: ILB Vontaze Burfict, ILB Dont'a Hightower, OLB Courtney Upshaw

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was reportedly riding OLB Jason Worilds from the first whistle of training camp. Tomlin knew with veteran James Harrison's offseason back surgery, Worilds would need to improve immediately due to the likelihood of seeing significant action in 2011. Turns out, Harrison's eye and Woodley's hamstring led to much more of that than anyone expected. Worilds did not sell anyone on the idea he's the next great Steelers outside linebacker. He struggled greatly against the run, and didn't play with the strength one would expect from his 260-pound frame. He was something of a project when the Steelers chose him in the second round of 2011, and he'll use the experience he gained this season to improve.

That doesn't mean another outside linebacker won't be added. It seems likely, in fact. Undersized high-motor Chris Carter looked lost in the few snaps he had last year, and probably has the biggest project tag on him on the team.

Harrison's contract is big, as is Woodley's, but considering Harrison will be 35 at the start of training camp in 2013, the Steelers need to look at another viable option who'd be ready to play at a high level after the 2012 season. It very well could be Worilds, but the Steelers wouldn't be comfortable with a rookie as the primary back-up to its most important defensive position.

Future troubles exist at inside linebacker as well. Despite most people's calls for James Farrior's ouster, his contract makes him difficult to cut. His leadership trumps any declining skill he may be experiencing, and the only option to play his position would be back-up Larry Foote, another player many are calling to be released. Farrior's mack position in this defense is akin to the quarterback on offense. Simply put, a rookie cannot play that position.

It would be wise for the Steelers to address this position with a high pick. ILB Lawrence Timmons failed to turn many heads in the first year of his six-year contract extension signed this off-season. They've never tried him at the mack, and his athleticism makes him a better fit for the buck anyway.


Draft Possibilities: Stephon Gilmore, Janoris Jenkins, Alphonso Dennard

Rookie CB Cortez Allen beat out second-year man Crezdon Butler for a roster spot in training camp, an eye-opening move at the time. Allen played well in spot duty in 2011, and it appears all the mid-level picks invested at the cornerback position in recent years are beginning to pay off. William Gay eventually replaced veteran Bryant McFadden at the cornerback spot opposite Ike Taylor, and Keenan Lewis was the third corner, and covered outside in the Steelers' nickel package as Gay moved inside.

The question this off-season will be whether to sign Gay, an unrestricted free agent, to a long-term deal. Odds say no, considering the Steelers' perilous cap position and the recent investment in youth at the position. Veteran defensive backs have great value in the league though, and McFadden isn't expected to be back. Rookie Curtis Brown saw extensive time on special teams, and his development as a corner could help the Steelers make that decision.


Draft Possibilities: SS Mark Barron

Unfortunately, it's not a great draft for Day 1 safeties. While it doesn't seem the first pick will go in that direction, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Steelers looked for an heir-apparent to either SS Troy Polamalu or FS Ryan Clark. Perhaps more to the point, they'd look for another Ryan Mundy sort of player; a guy who could play either the strong or free safety position.

Polamalu is still the best in the business, but still has the lingering health concerns affecting his future status. He just signed a five-year contract extension before the 2011 season, so injured or not, Polamalu isn't going anywhere.

Obviously, that's a great thing for the Steelers. They do need to begin looking at some future help at the position, however. Veteran Will Allen was brought in mainly for special teams, and the emergence of Curtis Brown as the team's punt gunner, Allen may be cut this off-season.

Main back-up Ryan Mundy forced two fumbles in Pittsburgh's playoff loss, and showed glimpses this season of a capable starter.

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01-22-2012, 03:55 PM
On the Steelers: Expect a defensive upheaval Farrior, Hampton candidates to go

Sunday, January 22, 2012
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


At $4.89 million, Casey Hampton would count the most against the salary cap in 2012.

Warren Sapp's infamous shot across the Steelers' defensive bow -- old, slow and it's over -- might have been a bit premature when he said it after their opening 35-7 loss in Baltimore.

Now the Steelers' hierarchy will deliver that message. Look for them to drop the hammer before March 13 on as many as four players who opened the season as starters in that game against the Ravens, and maybe not stop there.

The defense that yielded the fewest total yards, total points and total yards passing will take the biggest hits all over the next few months. Injury, age and the salary cap are the culprits.

The Steelers are $25 million over the roughly $124 million salary cap that will go into effect March 13. That, Steelers president Art Rooney said Tuesday, will call for some tough decisions. What makes some particularly difficult are the long and distinguished careers that either will end or reach their Pittsburgh end soon.

Candidates on defense to be released and their scheduled 2012 salaries that would vanish if they are: Aaron Smith ($2.1 million), Bryant McFadden ($2.5 million), James Farrior ($2.82 million), Casey Hampton ($4.89 million), and Larry Foote ($3 million).

Releasing those five would whittle $15.31 million from their salary cap. In addition, William Gay and Chris Hoke will be unrestricted free agents.

That comes to four starters, whether you count McFadden on opening day or Gay, who replaced him; a virtual starter in Foote; and a longtime starter-capable backup in Hoke.

Poof, $15 million erased from the cap!

But can the Steelers afford to lose so much on defense, not only in physical talent but in the intangibles that many of those players bring, all at once?

Maybe not. They might, for example, want to keep either Farrior or Foote, perhaps see which one might play for much less in 2012. Gay also has become a valuable cornerback for them. If they believe Keenan Lewis or one of the two rookies, Curtis Brown or Cortez Allen, are not yet ready to start, they may try to re-sign Gay.

Farrior has been their heart and soul for years, and losing him would punch a leadership hole into one of the longstanding best defenses in the NFL. He is 37 and not the same linebacker he was only a few years ago, but he still ranked fourth in tackles and had two sacks. Farrior could be brought back for one more season of transition for the defense; or Foote, another recognized leader and 51/2 years younger, might be the one. Bringing both back may be asking too much of this cap-strapped team.

Smith and Hoke had neck surgeries in the fall that, combined with their age, likely will prompt either of them or the Steelers to call it quits. Hampton, on the other hand, escaped without needing surgery on his ACL knee injury from the playoff game in Denver. However, his salary and his role as a part-timer who plays only in the 3-4 base defense could prompt a parting of the ways. They could ask him to take a drastically reduced salary but Hampton has never come across as one willing to do that. He is Big Snack, after all, not Little Snack.

Untouchables on defense and their 2012 salaries are Troy Polamalu ($7.5 million), LaMarr Woodley ($9 million), James Harrison ($6.57 million), Ike Taylor ($6 million), Brett Keisel ($2.82 million), safety Ryan Clark ($3 million) and Lawrence Timmons ($5.37 million). However, it does not mean they cannot try to restructure any of those contracts to save salary cap charges in 2012.

When the smoke clears, what kind of defense might they have? Perhaps not one much different than what they had in 2011.

Hampton's possible loss would prompt the biggest facelift. He has been a fixture at nose tackle since 2001. His possible replacements range from current backup Steve McLendon to end Ziggy Hood to a draft choice. Moving Hood would affect two positions, but they also drafted Cameron Heyward to play defensive end and that would open the job for him. Depth might be a problem, although they have shown some interest in young backups at end, Al Woods and Corbin Bryant.

Timmons would be paired at inside linebacker with either Foote/Farrior or Stevenson Sylvester. The corners would be Taylor and Gay or one of three others. Their safeties would remain the same.

It may not look to be as formidable a lineup as what opened the 2011 season, but it has its possibilities, maybe to be even more effective. They would take huge steps toward improvement if their two former Pro Bowl outside linebackers can stay healthier in 2011. Woodley had nine sacks in the first half of the season, then hardly played in the second half. Harrison had nine sacks and missed five games.

Having those two play more often also might help their turnovers, which were their major shortcoming in 2011, second only to them allowing the 92-yard drive by Baltimore to pull that game out at Heinz Field with six seconds left. The AFC championship game might have been held at Heinz this afternoon had they somehow prevented that Ravens' touchdown.

The Steelers managed only 15 takeaways last season, their historical low and more than half what they had in 2011, when they forced 35. Art Rooney on Tuesday noted that as one of the negatives for the 2011 season.

The lack of turnovers were likely an anomaly since they were so good at it just one year earlier. That, then, is bound to improve in 2012.

The Steelers also made a drastic changeover on defense that some saw as a negative but, in this era of increased passing, may be a move in the right direction, whether conscious or not in its development. They not only ranked No. 1 in stopping the run in 2010, they were the third-best team at doing so since the 16-game schedule started in 1978. They allowed just 62.8 yards rushing per game. In 2011, that ballooned to 99.8, still a respectable ninth in the NFL but not nearly as dominant.

However, the tradeoff may have come in their defense vs. the pass. They were No. 1 in 2011, allowing 171.9 yards per game, compared to 214.1 per game the previous season.

In the NFL of the 21st century, stopping the pass has become more important than stopping the run. However, swiping some of those passes must become part of their equation in 2012.

As Rooney noted, the Steelers must make tough decisions, and many will come on defense. But that does not mean those decisions need to weaken their defense.

"We have a good mix of younger players and veterans on this team," Rooney said. "We need the younger players to keep coming on and I think this offseason is particularly important for a group of those guys.

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