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Steelers' Needs on Defense During the Offseason

by David Kuklis


Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


The Pittsburgh Steelers have always been known as a defensive team first, even when Ben Roethlisberger was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. With the likes of Lambert, Ham, Greene, and Watt, the men of steel have been a linebacker factory, while other teams waited in the wings to poach the one that Pittsburgh could not afford to keep.


The Steelers just gave Defensive Coordinator Teryl Austin an extension this offseason but the team’s biggest issue during the 2023 season wasn’t coaching—it was the number of injuries to important players. Future Hall of Famer Cam Heyward was injured throughout the year, which hurt the run stopping defense that was based around him. Pittsburgh also lost their top two inside linebackers for an extended time and Pro bowl safety Minkah Fitzpatrick missed a half a dozen contests with a variety of ailments. The Steelers will again dip into the free agent marketplace to fill holes on the defensive side of the ball and will likely turn to the draft to add to the cornerback and safety position.


For starters, the defensive line remains extremely thin. Heyward is getting older and had to come back from an injury as early as he could to help the line against the run at the end of the year. He still has some fuel left in the tank but needs help around him. The Steelers did draft rookie starter Keeanu Benton last year and he proved that they made the right choice in taking him. He should be a large part of the defensive line for years to come. But the problem persists. The rest of the line has played way below Tomlin’s standard. DeMarvin Leal hasn’t lived up to expectation or potential and the rest of the DL group is a mismatch of journeymen and late round talent. The Steelers will need to look to the draft or add a solid veteran who can fill in for both Heyward and Benton, so they stay fresh throughout a long season.


From the edge, the Black and Gold really missed TJ Watt in the playoffs, but he will be back and ready for another season in his prime. Alex Highsmith has been solid on the other side and took over some games at times when Watt was out or being double and triple teamed. Nick Herbig was a steal in the fourth round last year and looked great when he had the chance at more playing time during the campaign. Edge rusher is a strength, and GM Omar Khan may be able to spend his precious draft capital elsewhere.


The big issue from the linebacker corps was on the inside. The free agent signings of Elandon Roberts, Kwon Alexander and Cole Holcomb seemed to be working out well, but Alexander and Holcomb were lost to season ending injuries and Roberts missed time, too. Holcomb may not even be ready for the start of the season since he tore his ACL mid-year.


A free agent target frequently mentioned in the rumor mill is Bobby Wagner, the Seattle Seahawks longtime great. He’s excellent against the run and a big hitter but is used to playing alone in the middle and not in a 3-4 defense. Time will tell if he’s interested in making the switch.


However, the biggest concern for the Steelers during this offseason may be to find starters in the defensive backfield to complement Joey Porter Jr. at cornerback and Minkah Fitzpatrick at safety. Patrick Peterson was not the answer opposite Porter but did a great job when moved to play nickel corner inside and when he needed to play safety with all the injuries at that position. Chandon Sullivan played well at times, but Levi Wallace played well below Tomlin’s proverbial “line.” Veteran Eric Rowe was signed late in the year and looked strong when he was brought in to play safety with Damontae Kazee’s suspension, but Pittsburgh needs to look to the draft for a cornerback prospect and another safety. The Steelers may restructure several high-end contracts on defense to make cap space in the free agent market.


Overall, the Steelers did have the 6th rated scoring defense in the NFL this past season, but at times looked pedestrian and a little overwhelmed when the stars were out of the lineup. Hopefully, the draft and free agency will help the Steelers get back to what they are known for—a feared defense that would make the Steel Curtain proud.

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