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Predicting Steelers 2019 Starting Lineup with Grades Pt. 2 – The Defense

July 30, 2019
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Predicting Steelers 2019 Starting Lineup with Grades Pt. 2 – The Defense

On paper the Steelers’ ‘D’ didn’t look too bad last year. They ranked 9th in overall yardage given up, 6th against rush and 10th against the pass. They led the league, tying with Kansas City for most sacks with 52. They were 12th in pass deflections. Where they started to get in trouble was points scored against, ranking 16th. Then it really goes down hill in the turnover category. The Steelers only had eight interceptions which placed them 28th in the NFL. And while they 10th in forced fumbles, they were 19th in recoveries with just seven.

The statistics don’t tell the whole story because when it came to stopping drives late in the game, the team consistently fell short. The coaching was also horrific at times with the low point being Keenan Allen torching the team for 14 receptions and a TD, while a hapless ILB, L.J. Fort, failed miserably trying to keep up with him. The fault here isn’t with Fort, it is with Defensive Coordinator, Keith Butler, who DID NOTHING to make any changes when his initial game plan wasn’t working. It was clear he had no ‘Plan B’, all year long. Hell, he barely had an ‘A’, unless switching, wildly, between blitzing and the most conservative cover packages is a game plan.

There were personnel problems galore starting with former 1st Rounder, Artie Burns getting benched for journeyman, Coty Sensabaugh. The team also got very little from another 1st Round pick, Bud Dupree who is looking more and more like a bust. Jon Bostic who the team brought in to start at weakside inside linebacker proved to play more like a MACK. He didn’t play poorly, he just couldn’t do the things the team lost with Ryan Shazier’s injury. #Shalieve!!! Bostic is now with the Washington Redskins.

The team made some big moves in the off season. Longtime DB coach, Carnell Lake, ‘resigned’. They brought in Teryl Austin as Senior Defensive Assistant and Secondary Coach. Rumors have been he’s here to help Tomlin co-manage the  Defense. They signed Cornerback, Steven Nelson, who should take over starting Cornerback duties and the hard hitting ILB, Mark Barron. They got ‘their guy’, drafting ILB, Devin Bush, in the 1st Rd. Bush should prove to be a first year starter or major contributor. They got a good Defensive Back prospect in Michigan State’s, Justin Layne with their 2nd, 3rd Round pick. They also got a steal in the 6th Rd, adding Alabama DL, Isaiah Buggs, who can play all along the D-Line and should be a first year contributor with starting potential.

The one thing they didn’t do and the thing that may negate all their gains is fire Keith Butler. OLB coach, Joey Porter was not asked back and it was announced Butler would be taking over those duties. There’s been speculation this is a face saver for his DC role being scaled back. Also, that either Mike Tomlin, Teryl Austin or both will assume Butler’s play calling duties. If this happens, we will have to see if it makes anything better.

Still, the on field additions should do a great deal to eliminate the shortcomings of 2018. With that, here’s a prediction of the 2019 defensive starting lineup along with the depth situation, with grades.

Defense

Defensive Line

Starters – DE, Cam Heyward – Defensive Team Captain, Heyward has been a fixture on the D-Line since he was drafted in 2011. He comes off one his best statistical years chalking up 51 tackles and 8 sacks. He went to the Pro Bowl for the second time.  Grade – A

NT, Javon Hargrave – The Gravedigger has been the unsung hero of the front three consistently playing tough against the run and providing good pressure up the middle. He was taken out of the lineup a good deal in Buter’s cover packages but still he had 49 tackles and 6.5 sacks in 2018. Grade – B+

DE, Stephon Tuitt – When he’s healthy, which doesn’t seem to be often, Tuitt plays very well. He missed four games in 2018 but put up good numbers with 45 tackles and 5.5 sacks. But if he goes down again in 2019 he might not get his starting job back from Isaiah Buggs. Grade – B-

Overall DL starters group, Grade – B+

The Backups – DE, Tyson Alualu has proven to be a great depth addition. He consistently steps in for the oft injured Tuitt and gives a good game. NT, Dan McCullers has failed to develop but he can take up space when he’s anchored. The Steelers missed out by not drafting run stuffer, Auburn’s NT, Dontavius Russell, who was still available in the late rounds. Lavon Hooks is back but he just seems like one of these guys the Steelers let stick around. LSU’s Greg Gilmore, who was an undrafted free agent and then went to the AFF last year, has been invited back to camp. Gilmore put up good stats in his Senior year and can play both DE or NT. Rookie, Isaiah Buggs, should be a first year contributor at both DE and NT, so there is decent depth along the D-Line. Grade – B-.

Linebackers

Starters – OLB, T.J. Watt has emerged as the star of the LB corps. He tallied 68 tackles with a team leading 13.0 sacks, 21 QB hits, 12 tackles for loss and 6 forced fumbles, as well as 3 pass deflections. The former TE was also good in pass protection. Watt went to his first Pro Bowl in 2018. Since we need to have room for improvement, Grade – A

WILL, Devin Bush figures to be a 1st year starter. Don’t expect him to be the new Ryan Shazier, right away. He will probably be used more like Troy Polamalu. Someone you can put by the line of scrimmage and let make things happen. If he shows he can handle that and the front seven play calling duties that picture will change quick. His blazing (4.43/40) sideline to sideline speed and elusiveness on inside blitzes should be big upgrade. Grade – Incomplete. (We’ll know after we see him play)

MACK, Mark Barron is really more of a WILL type but as a converted SS he’s better in pass coverage than the 2018 starter, Vince Williams. It will  probably be more of a sharing situation between Bush, Barron and Williams at ILB. Also, Williams may be the announced starter more games but based on last year’s averages, Barron will be playing 60% of the snaps to Williams’ 40%. His hard hitting athleticism, cover ability and sideline to sideline game should give the team a big boost. Grade – B

OLB, Bud Dupree – The weakest link in the chain is the former 1st rounder. He hasn’t been terrible (like Jarvis Jones) but he has been very disappointing. Kevin Colbert seems to bend over backwards to shield Dupree (and himself, I guess)  from criticism. He has even lumped Dupree’s and Watts’ performance together when asked a direct question about the under performing starter. With 42 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 3 passes defended, and 1 interception, it’s hard to justify picking up his 9.2 million dollar contract. That money could’ve bought one high performing or two above average free agents. Grade – C-

Overall LB starters group, until we know what we have in Bush, Grade – B-

The Backups – Having Vince Williams as a ‘backup’ is a pretty good situation to be in. OLB, Anthony Chickillo who’s not great in pass coverage but is good when they let him come after the QB is pretty much a lock. Olasunkanmi Adeniyi flashed some good play from the edge in preseason last year. Rookie, Ulysees Gilbert, has swing capability at ILB and OLB. He has a strong chance of beating out Tyler Matakevich for the ILB4. Keith Butler’s boy, the tiny ‘edge rusher’, Sutton Smith, will not make the team unless he shows something on special teams. Backups group, Grade – B-.

Cornerbacks

The Starters – CB, Joe Haden has settled into the Steelers like he’s been there all along. He is the leader of the Secondary and plays a tough game, every game. Grade – B+

CB, Steven Nelson was the other big off season signing. With 4 interceptions, 15 pass deflections and 68 tackles, he would’ve been the statistical leader of the CBs had he been with the team last year. A big upgrade over Coty Sensabaugh and Artie Burns. Grade – B+

Slot/Dime-backer, Mike Hilton – In 2018 Hilton didn’t have as many big plays coming on outside blitzes but he was still a very dependable defensive back/Dime-backer. 57 tackles with 6 for a loss, 5 QB hits and 1 sack are still good stats. He also had 8 pass deflections and 1 int. Grade – B+

Starting CB Group, you guessed it, Grade – B+

The CB Backups – I hear Coty Sensabaugh was searching for more money. So far, he’s not signed. The Steelers should really try to bring him back. After beating out Artie Burns he’s a very good CB3 option. Their current backup situation is not good. Burns should be cut. It would free enough money to pay Sensabaugh, with some help from the final cuts. Michigan State’s, Justin Layne, is a great prospect but untested. Brian Allen, who shows up as a FS backup sometimes on the depth chart, has shown nothing and Cam Sutton who has great potential is in the same boat. Current backups, Grade – D

Safeties

The Starters – Free Safety, Sean Davis – As a Strong Safety, Davis was a total liability in pass coverage. The Steelers made a very good decision moving Davis to center-field where his vision, range and intelligence could be used to full advantage. He was a huge upgrade over the constantly out of position, Mike Mitchell. Davis was always where he should be as last line of defense and eliminated the team’s ‘neck up’ problems at the position. He should continue to improve this year.  Grade – B

SS, Terrell Edmunds – Just like Davis was a big improvement over Mitchell, Edmunds was a big improvement over Davis at Strong Safety. Edmunds was thrown into the fire when Morgan Burnett was injured and he did well enough Burnett never got the starting spot away from him. He had some rookie moments but his arrow is pointing up. Grade – B

Overall Safety Starters Group, you guessed it, again, Grade – B

The Safety Backups – No bueno. Jordan Dangerfield seems to be one of those guys the team keeps bringing back because ‘he knows the system’. Listed at FS, Marcus Allen is really more of a SS type. Brian Allen seems to show up here because the team can’t admit they made a mistake in drafting him. Undrafted FA, WVU’s FS, Dravon Askew-Henry, has a shot at hanging on BUT the team MUST bring in some veteran help, here. Grade – D-

Punting

Punter, Jordan Berry – Though it’s part of special teams the punt is your first line of defense when a drive stalls. Berry has dependability problems and puts up some ducks but when he gets a hold of one he booms it. He was 22nd the NFL with 44.6 yard per in 2018. His return yardage landed him at 16th. So he’s sort of average or a little below. I really don’t get why the team didn’t use one it’s late round picks on Jack Bailey or Jack Fox. The guy they’ve got in camp to compete with him, Ian Berryman won’t cut it. Grade – C-

Final Thoughts

Overall the defensive starters group is in the Grade B to B+ range. If some of the new additions perform well that ‘B” could become an ‘A’. Depth is where problems start, that and having Bud Dupree as a starter with no one on the team to challenge him. Passing on Chase Winovich may prove to be a big mistake. Even later in Draft there were some good Edge prospects. The Steelers chose to pass on Georgia’s De’Andre Walker and WVU’s David Long either of whom would’ve been better than Sutton Smith. But we can’t change any of that, so, moving’ on.

All the improvements the Steelers made on defense might not mean a thing if Keith Butler is calling the plays. It’s taken him four seasons to realize Cover Two, Zone Under hasn’t been a viable defensive scheme since Tony Dungi retired. He should’ve been fired in the off season but that didn’t happen. The team is probably doing what they usually do. They never fire anyone. The just don’t re-sign them to contracts. This is the final year of Butler’s contract. It will be interesting to see if Austin or Tomlin start calling plays when a game goes south.

The good news is the Defense wasn’t really bad last year and the Steelers did a very good job of plugging the biggest holes. Edmunds and Davis both have a year under their belt at their positions and with each other. The team has two good outside Cornerbacks, now, with a good prospect to bring up. The Linebacker’s group has two new dynamic players. The D-Line is solid and has a prospect with starter potential waiting in the wings. The team’s arrow is definitely pointing up and the idiots at Pro Football Focus who predicted a 28th ranked Defense are going to be surprised by how stingy and tough the Steelers are.

Go Stillers!!!

Jeffrey Burton

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