Like those anxious to see the Steeler offense at full strength, many people are excited to see what a maturing Pittsburgh Steelers defense brings to the table in 2017.
If everyone plays to their potential, this could be the best defense in Pittsburgh since 2011 when they led the league allowing just 15.1 points per game. That was the team shocked by Tim Tebow and the Broncos in the playoffs.
Cam Heyward, Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier, Sean Davis, Artie Burns should all be healthy and ready to go at the start of training camp.
Davis, Burns and Javon Hargrave are looking to build off solid rookie years.
“It’s reasonable to expect a significant jump,” head coach Mike Tomlin said, “for the same reasons we were talking about issues that rookies face: There are no unknowns for those guys. They have been in Latrobe before. They know where these roads lead so it should be reflected in their readiness and in their play.”
Heyward, Hargrove, and Stephon Tuitt will anchor the defensive line. Tyson Alualu and Daniel McCullers will also see time.
The Pittsburgh Steelers linebackers should be solid across the board, even with the departure of Lawrence Timmons. Bud Dupree and James Harrison will man the outside linebacker positions, as will first round selection T.J. Watt. Arthur Moats, Anthony Chickillo, and perhaps seventh round pick Keion Adams will compete for the backup spots.
Dupree ended the season with 4 1⁄2 sacks, finishing second to Harrison’s five. He also recorded a half-sack in the playoffs while playing all but three defensive snaps. He is looking to become a force in 2017.
Vince Williams will be Timmons’ replacement, as he and Ryan Shazier look to lock down opposing offenses as the team’s middle linebackers. Shazier, when healthy, exhibits elite play.
The longtime weakness in the team’s defense may become its best in the secondary.
Artie Burns, as mentioned by Tomlin, will expect to elevate his game at corner in his 2nd year. He played well last season despite being injured. Ross Cockrell and William Gay are also in the mix to start. The Pittsburgh Steelers signed Coty Sensabaugh in the offseason. Senquez Golson is looking to contribute after never seeing a snap in the NFL since his selection in 2015 due to season ending injuries. The team drafted Cameron Sutton (3rd rd) and Brian Allen (5th rd).
Protecting the secondary in the middle is Mike Mitchell and 2nd year pro Sean Davis.
The team will look to pressure opposing quarterbacks on every snap and transition to playing more man-to-man coverage in the secondary.
Secondary Coach Carnell Lake is impressed with what he sees out of Burns.
“He’s really progressing well in that area,” Lake said. “He’s being physical. He is challenging Antonio Brown, arguably one of the best receivers in the league, in practice every day. Moreover, that is just going to make him better. The more confident he is covering someone like A.B., the more he should be able to transfer that to our competitors to get ready to start the season.”
Editor’s Note: This article can also be seen in our upcoming NFL Preview Edition.