1) A heavy investment in defensive personnel should pay dividends.
The Steelers' model for building a championship squad revolves around the "draft and develop" blueprint initially implemented by four-time Super Bowl winner Chuck Noll during the 1970s. The Hall of Fame coach believed in drafting players with prototypical physical dimensions and dynamic skills perfectly suited to fit the team's scheme, a trend that continued under Bill Cowher during his tenure as a Super Bowl-winning coach. Current coach Mike Tomlin has certainly put his thumbprints on the Steelers' roster, particularly over the past three seasons, with the team in the midst of a defensive transformation.
Since 2014, the Steelers have used their first- and second-round picks exclusively on defensive players, continuing with this year's pair of cornerbacks: Artie Burns (25th overall) and Sean Davis (58th overall). The duo will join Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, Bud Dupree, Jarvis Jones and Lawrence Timmons as core members of a young, athletic defense with a wolfpack mentality. With veteran leaders like James Harrison and William Gay leading the way, the defense is starting to regain the swagger that accompanied the unit for the better part of a decade.
Consider also that nine of the projected defensive starters -- everyone but safety Mike Mitchell and cornerback Ross Cockrell -- were drafted by the Steelers, while the second unit is littered with draftees waiting for their chance to crack the lineup. This is a testament to the team's homegrown philosophy. The "draft and develop" approach has clearly served Pittsburgh well during this makeover.
Evaluating the Steelers' depth chart, I believe they've assembled a solid front seven with an intriguing mix of blue-collar workers and blue-chip talents. The defensive line, in particular, features a disruptive pair of defensive ends (Cameron Heyward and Tuitt) on the verge of joining the ranks of the elite at their respective positions. Heyward (seven sacks) and Tuitt (6.5) finished first and second on the team in sacks in 2015 and ranked fifth among defensive line duos in the AFC. The Steelers employ a 3-4 scheme that places the defensive ends on the interior (outside linebackers pressure the quarterback off the edges), and the pair was able to produce sacks and have a disruptive impact that is uncommon for inside rushers.
At linebacker, the Steelers feature one of the NFL's top 1-2 punches on the inside, with Shazier coming into his own alongside Timmons. Shazier is not only a tackling machine, but the third-year pro is a versatile defender capable of hunting quarterbacks down off the edges or running with slot receivers and tight ends down the seams. The Steelers take advantage of his athleticism by deploying him at a variety of spots in their base and sub-packages. Timmons, an energetic playmaker with the athleticism, range and pass-rush skills to attack opposing backfields from every angle, is just as destructive on the interior. The ninth-year pro primarily does his damage through the A- or B-gap (center-offensive guard or offensive guard-offensive tackle gaps) on zone dogs.
Against the Cleveland Brownsin Week 17 last season, Timmons registered a sack and a fumble on a nickel "knife B" blitz, as you can see below. After bluffing a coverage disguise, Timmons is instructed to attack the A-gap from depth. The nickel corner (Brandon Boykin) is expected to blitz through the B-gap from his slot corner alignment. The design of the blitz puts Timmons in a one-on-one situation with rookie offensive lineman Cameron Erving at the line of scrimmage. The veteran takes advantage of the young blocker by faking a move into the B-gap before spinning into the A-gap. With Boykin attracting the attention of Browns running back Isaiah Crowell in the backfield, Timmons waltzes into quarterback Austin Davis' lap for an easy sack, knocking the ball loose:
For years, the outside linebacker position served as the marquee spot for playmakers in the Steelers' defense. Some of the NFL's most feared sack artists (Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Chad Brown, Joey Porter, LaMarr Woodley and Harrison) occupied the crown jewel spot in the Steelers' lineup as energetic rushers with exceptional first-step quickness and closing speed. Although the Steelers currently lack a marquee name at the position, today's crew of pass rushers (Harrison, Dupree, Jones and Arthur Moats) shows promise. Dupree, in particular, is an intriguing playmaker with a knack for getting to the quarterback. The second-year pro, who registered four sacks in a part-time role as a rookie in 2015, flashed potential as a designated pass rusher early in the season. If he can add a few more tools to the toolbox, he could blossom into the double-digit sack artist that elevates the play of the unit.
For more on the secondary, which has not performed up to standards in recent years but should benefit from the infusion of talent from the past two drafts, scroll to the third section below.
2) Keith Butler's "kid-friendly" scheme helps the youngsters contribute.
When Hall of Fame inductee and zone-blitz originator Dick LeBeau "resigned" from the Steelers following the 2014 season, most observers didn't expect radical changes from new defensive coordinator Keith Butler, based on the team's unprecedented defensive dominance in the previous system. (From 2004 to 2014, Pittsburgh fielded the No. 1 overall defense five times and led the NFL in scoring defense four times.) The team's exotic zone-blitz system terrorized opponents for more than a decade, and the masterful orchestration of the "organized chaos" made the Steelers' defense one of the most challenging units to face. However, the intricate system featured a lengthy call sheet (the Steelers reportedly had as many as 70 defensive calls in the game plan each week) and a series of checks or adjustments that made it difficult for younger players to absorb it early in their careers. Thus, the Steelers' defense was littered with "graybeards" in prominent roles, due to the confidence and trust LeBeau had in his veteran players.
Under Butler, the Steelers tweaked the defensive scheme to make it easier for young players to get onto the field. The volume of the playbook was scaled back dramatically to reduce mental errors and allow players to play "fast and free" on the perimeter. In addition, the Steelers added some "one-gap" fronts to the game plan to enable the defensive line to make plays instead of eating up blocks at the point of attack. With the defensive line free to penetrate and create disruption, the Steelers' linebackers were allowed to aggressively pursue ball carriers on bounces or cutbacks caused by penetration. As a result, the Steelers held opponents to 91.2 rushing yards per game (fifth-best in the NFL) and a measly 3.8 yards per carry.
As for passing defense, the Steelers ranked near the bottom of the NFL in yards allowed but finished third in sacks (48) and near the top of the charts in takeaways (30). While some critics have taken the defense to task for its poor overall ranking against the pass, astute observers understand that the Steelers' explosive offense forces opponents into "catch-up" mode, which results in more pass attempts (the Steelers faced 39.1 pass attempts per game, sixth most in the NFL). Despite facing a barrage of throws, the defense only allowed 52 completions of at least 20 yards (tied for 13th least) and tallied 17 interceptions (tied for sixth most).
From a schematic standpoint, the Steelers remain an aggressive unit prone to peppering offenses with blitzes (Pittsburgh blitzed on 36.4 percent of passing downs, up from 32.4 percent in 2014 under LeBeau), but the coverage features more three-under, three-deep concepts (three underneath zone defenders with three deep players) behind the pressure. The zone concepts allow defenders to see the ball leave the quarterback's hand. Thus, the defense is able to react more quickly and limit the "YAC" (yards after catch) that are frequently compiled on "hot" routes or sight adjustments against pressure.
On early downs, Butler mixes some single-high safety looks (Cover 1 and Cover 3) into the mix to create eight-man fronts to stop the run. In addition, the presence of a deep middle safety allows the Steelers to disguise some of their blitz pressures.
On obvious passing downs, the Steelers incorporate more Cover 2 and Tampa 2 coverages into the game plan. The two-deep, five-under coverage forces quarterbacks to settle for checkdowns and dump-offs to the running back or tight end when played correctly. Most importantly, it allows seven defenders to keep their eyes on the quarterback and react quickly when the ball is thrown. This leads to more "bang-bang" plays in the secondary, which result in interceptions on tips or overthrows.
Here is an example of the Steelers' version of Tampa 2 from their Week 14 matchup against Cincinnati. The Steelers are in their nickel defense (two defensive linemen, four linebackers and five defensive backs) playing the standard version with five underneath droppers and a pair of deep safeties splitting the field in half. Timmons is the key man in the coverage as the "run through" player down the middle. He is responsible for taking the WR2 or WR3 down the seam on vertical routes. Timmons' presence down the middle allows the safeties to play wider to defend deep passes along the boundary. The corners are instructed to jam the outside receivers and funnel them to the inside. After making the initial jam, the corners are expected to read the WR2 (the slot receiver) to determine whether to run or squat on the outside. (If the WR2 goes vertical, the corner must run with the WR1 down the field.) On this play, the Steelers get great jams on the outside receivers and sink deep enough to discourage AJ McCarron from making a throw down the field. As a result, the quarterback drops the ball off to the running back in the flat. The Steelers see the ball thrown and hustle to the running back to hold Jeremy Hill to a 5-yard gain:
When executed perfectly, Tampa 2 and Cover 2 force quarterbacks to settle for short throws underneath coverage. With most quarterbacks lacking the patience to utilize a "dink and dunk" approach down the field, the Steelers are counting on gunslingers to force a ball into a tight window, leading to an interception off a deflection or overthrow.
Considering the simple principles of these coverages, particularly Cover 2 and Tampa 2, the Steelers can work more young players into the rotation without worrying about mental breakdowns and blown coverages.
3) They have the ballhawks for the coverages Mike Tomlin prefers.
For any defensive scheme to work effectively in the NFL, the defense must have enough playmakers with the skills to thrive within the system. As the Steelers move to a system that features a number of traditional zone and zone-blitz tactics, the team needed to acquire a handful of explosive athletes with excellent quickness, agility, ball skills and instincts. Unlike bump-and-run or press-man coverage, which enables defensive play callers to grab speedy straight-line athletes with limited football awareness or intelligence, zone-based systems require defenders with superb instincts, awareness and hands. Zone corners should be able to "key the three-step" (jump quick passes based on the quarterback's drop), pattern read (route recognition), turn-and-transition and show superb ball skills.
In the secondary, the team has added a number of young athletes with the skills needed to thrive as playmakers in a "see ball, get ball" defense. William Gay might be older, but the 10th-year pro has five pick-sixes in his career and a knack for making plays on the ball. He jumps routes in his area and has become a solid CB1 for the squad, as you can see in the play below:
Ross Cockrell is a "junkyard dog" with a high football IQ and terrific instincts. He quickly worked his way into the rotation after signing with the team as a street free agent. Cockrell finished the season with a pair of interceptions and forced a fumble as a part-time starter in 2015. He will have to battle to keep his spot at right cornerback, but his grit and competitive toughness could make him the Opening Day starter, despite facing tough competition.
The Steelers' secondary could become one of the top units in football in the near future, with a trio of young players jumping into the rotation. Artie Burns and Sean Davis are expected to vie for immediate playing time as rookies. Both players are explosive athletes with skills that are ideally suited for playing in the Steelers' zone-based scheme.
Burns, a 6-foot, 193-pound cover corner with All-American credits as a 110-meter high hurdler, is a natural playmaker with terrific hands and ball skills. He finished his junior season with six interceptions, but he has the potential to be an exceptional ballhawk when he refines his technique on the perimeter. If he can master the nuances of the Steelers' zone coverage, he could be an impact player in Year 1.
Davis, a 6-1, 201-pound safety with significant experience at cornerback, is an instinctive centerfielder with "thump" and a hitter's mentality. He finished his collegiate career with 300-plus tackles and registered five forced fumbles in 2015. Davis' skills make him a potential fit as a free safety or nickel/dime cornerback in sub-packages. With the Steelers desperately searching for a designated playmaker to use in a variety roles in the back end.
Senquez Golson is the wild card of the bunch heading into training camp. The 2015 second-rounder is a "pick magnet" with exceptional instincts and ball skills. The former collegiate baseball player finished his Ole Miss career with 16 interceptions, including 10 picks during his final season. After spending last season on injured reserve with a torn labrum, the second-year pro could make a run at a starting position or sub-package role based on his diagnostic skills and anticipation. With the Steelers fielding a formidable pass rush to force the ball to come out hot, Golson and the rest of the young ballhawks could feast on errant throws from AFC quarterbacks.