defense

Ranking The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Starting 11 On Defense

  • 2020 NFL Season
  • Pittsburgh Steelers
By Zach Szklenski September 5, 2020 0 Comment
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The Steelers’ defense is loaded with game wreckers. But, how do they compare when it is all said and done?

The Pittsburgh Steelers fielded a dominant defense for the first time since the early 2010s in 2019. With the synergy of Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, etc. they will be doing so again. How do all these stars on defense compare with one another ? It was hard to do, but here is how I ranked these immensely talented defenders:

1. Outside Linebacker, T.J. Watt

T.J. Watt is objectively the best player on this very talented defense. For that matter, he is a top-three defender in the entire National Football League. In fact, he finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting behind only Stephon Gillmore and Chandler Jones. In 2019, Watt’s stellar year saw him record 14.5 sacks (tied for fourth in the NFL), eight forced fumbles (tied for first in the NFL), four fumble recoveries, and two picks.

T.J. Watt gets this defense going with his contagious fiery energy and is the heart and soul of this defense. It all starts with him and his other-worldly high motor. Throughout his career, Watt has compiled 34.5 sacks. That ranks fifth among all NFL linebackers since he began his NFL career in 2017. He has 15 forced fumbles, which ranks first in the NFL since 2017, and three interceptions. T.J. Watt is going to be the next Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker that is revered for many decades.

2. Free Safety, Minkah Fitzpatrick

Prior to week 3 of the Steelers 2019 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers were searching for the missing piece of their defense. They found it in a trade that was ridiculed by many. The Steelers acquired Minkah Fitzpatrick, sending their 2020 first-round pick, among others, to the Miami Dolphins. Hindsight is 20/20, but the Steelers wouldn’t have done anything differently.

When the Steelers acquired Fitzpatrick, their defense had conceded 61 points through two games. They would go on to give up a total of only 60 through the next four. One can’t speak at length enough of how Fitzpatrick improved the Steelers’ defense overall. He will be a legendary player for years to come in the black and gold.

3. Defensive Lineman, Cameron Heyward

Earlier, I said that T.J. Watt was the heart and soul of this defense. However, Cam Heyward is the highly respected, undoubted leader of this defense.  Cameron Heyward is the perennial captain of the defense, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is of the offense. Heyward is a top-three interior defensive lineman in the entire NFL, as he has one of the highest motors in all of the NFL.

Last season, Cam Heyward racked up 51 tackles, nine sacks, and one forced fumble. Throughout his entire nine-year stint in Pittsburgh, Cam has totaled 54 sacks and 257 solo tackles. If the Steelers do go on a Super Bowl run this year, it will be behind their leader Cam Heyward.

4. Inside Linebacker, Devin Bush

The Steelers were desperate for a playmaker in the middle of that defense after losing pro-bowler Ryan Shazier to a potentially career-ending spinal injury in December of 2017. After the whole 2018 season without him, they knew that he probably won’t be coming back and that inside linebacker was a severe position of need. Thus, in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Steelers traded for the tenth-overall pick from the Broncos to acquire former Michigan standout Devin Bush. Bush was a sideline-to-sideline playmaker in his time at Michigan, and it didn’t take long until he was doing so in the NFL.

The 2019 NFL season saw Devin Bush amass 72 solo tackles, two picks, one forced fumble, and a sack. As those are good numbers for a rookie. Bush looks to exceed those totals in 202o. The sky is the limit for this exciting player as he enters year two on this Steelers defense that has lofty expectations.

5. Outside Linebacker, Bud Dupree

Many thought that Bud Dupree was the next first round bust for Pittsburgh. However, the ex-University of Kentucky football player has proven to conversely be just a late-bloomer. Dupree makes for a terrifying complement to T.J. Watt.

Through his first four NFL seasons, Dupree recorded a total of 20 sacks. In 2019, Bud had 11.5 sacks-recording more than half he had throughout his previous four seasons. It is uncertain whether or not he will be re-signed after this season, as this year he is playing on a $15.8 million franchise-tag. Albeit, he has made a significant mark on the Steelers franchise and will continue to do so in his 2020 campaign.

6. Cornerback, Joe Haden

When the Cleveland Browns cut pro-bowl cornerback Joe Haden on August 30, 2017, they thought his best days were behind him. However, Haden’s 2019 campaign was, quite possibly, his best. In 2019, Joe Haden picked off five passes, dropping at least four more, which tied for fourth in the entire NFL. The only season he recorded more was his rookie campaign in 2010 which saw him pick off six. Moreover, he had 17 passes defended, which was the fourth highest total in his 10-year career.

The biggest reason for their terrible defensive performances in the mid-2010s was due to a lack of competent cornerbacks. Not only does Joe Haden give them a competent cornerback, but he also gives them a pro-bowl caliber cornerback. Every great defense has that lockdown cornerback, Joe Haden definitely is that. 2020 should see a correlation between Joe Haden’s and the defense’s success.

7. Defensive Lineman, Stephon Tuitt

If not for a torn pectoral injury in 2019 after only six games, Stephon Tuitt was pushing for a pro-bowl nod. He was on pace to have his best season to date in his six-year NFL career, and not only in terms of numbers. Tuitt looked like a beast woken from a slumber in 2019 before getting knocked out with an injury.

Tuitt is a very disruptive complement to Cameron Heyward. He completes the pass-rushing quadruple of Watt, Dupree, Heyward, and himself. Through six games last season, Tuitt had 3 1/2 sacks, which put him on pace for a career-best nine sacks. If Tuitt comes back as excellent as he was last year, this pass-rush will be even more lethal than last year.

8. Cornerback, Steven Nelson

In the 2019 NFL offseason, Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert made a move that not many looked at for more than a second: the signing of cornerback Steven Nelson to a three-year, $25.5 million contract. The Steelers were looking for another cornerback to complement Joe Haden, and they got more than just a complement. They received a lockdown corner in his own right.

In the 2019 campaign, Steven Nelson allowed only 34 receptions on 66 targets, picked off a pass, and defended eight passes. With Nelson and Haden on each side at cornerback, the Steelers don’t just have a solid cornerback duo… they have an excellent one.

9. Inside Linebacker, Vince Williams

Inside Linebacker Vince Williams usually gets lost in the shuffle when talking about the highly talented Steelers defense. But he shouldn’t. Just the fact that Vince Williams, a sixth-round pick out of FSU in 2013, is still in the NFL is quite notable. But to be such a force in stopping-the-run and blitzing, he’s severely underrated and undervalued.

Throughout his seven-year NFL career, Vince Williams has 17.5 sacks, including eight in 2017, and 410 total tackles. He is truly a walking-talking wonder still being in the NFL after being a sixth-round pick seven years ago, but even more than that, he is a respected leader on this defense.

10. Strong Safety, Terrell Edmunds

A first-round, 28th overall pick out of Virginia Tech in 2018, it is an understatement to say that Terrell Edmunds has under-performed through two NFL seasons. Edmunds is a liability in pass-coverage and is not a proficient tackler. Not to say that he can’t improve in those areas this coming season, but the outlook past these next couple of years of being able to stay in Pittsburgh doesn’t look too bright. If Edmunds can put it all together this season, the Steelers defense could reach new heights.

11. Defensive Tackle, Tyson Alualu

Probably the least notable of the unit due to its immense talent is Tyson Alualu. He will attempt to fill the role that game wrecker Javon Hargrave did for four seasons. Alualu was a first-round pick in 2010 when he was selected tenth overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Quietly, this will be Alualu’s fourth season in Pittsburgh. All the Steelers are looking for is for Alualu to be good enough in the middle of the d-line. If he can do that, that’s a win for the Steelers’ defense.

 

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