Most of the attention surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason has — unsurprisingly — focused on their “Big Three” of superstars.
Ben Roethlisberger’s semi-shocking suggestion he might retire has sparked some uneasiness in the ‘Burgh. Antonio Brown successfully lobbying to renegotiate his contract garnered headlines for making him the highest-paid wide receiver in the game. And the hopes of eventually reaching a long-term contact with Le’Veon Bell, after placing the franchise tag on the All-Pro running back, has become the Steelers most public priority.
Those three players — as well as David DeCastro, who is scheduled to make nearly $8 million in 2017 — means the Steelers have an enormous percentage of their salary cap dedicated to a comparatively small portion of offense. And considering how maligned the Steelers defense has been in recent years, and how thoroughly the New England Patriots torched Pittsburgh in the this year’s AFC Championship Game, that disproportionate spending ratio has not gone unnoticed.
But in a typical substance-over-style approach, the Steelers haven’t broken the bank on any defensive free agents this offseason, and aside from a somewhat over-blown flirtation with Dont’a Hightower, they haven’t even entertained the possibility of signing one of the many high-priced talents available. They even let Lawrence Timmons, a staple of the Steelers defense for a decade, leave for Miami.
For a defense that didn’t post terribly impressive overall numbers — numbers which have to be considered slightly inflated considering two games against Cleveland, a visit to the A.J. Green-less Bengals, a visit to the Andrew Luck-less Colts and an early season thrashing of the putrid New York Jets — there’s a concern Pittsburgh hasn’t done enough to shore up that unit.
Recent signings of cornerback Coty Sensabaugh and defensive lineman Tyson Alualu weren’t met with much fanfare. Alualu may not be a “bust” in the truest sense of the word — after all, he was a regular starter for virtually six of his seven seasons in Jacksonville — but far more than that is expected of a 10th overall pick in the draft. And while Sensabaugh adds another potential slot corner to a secondary that is clearly the Steelers’ greatest defensive liability, the fact the Steelers are the fourth team he’s played with since 2015 is very telling.
Still, a closer, more thoughtful look at the Steelers’ actions (or inactions) this offseason reveal something shrewd.
One of the reasons why Pittsburgh has spent so much money on offensive personnel is they can afford to, and not because they have neglected their defensive needs. After Cam Heyward, the Steelers defense is loaded with comparatively cheap youth. Sure, Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Sean Davis, Javon Hargrave and Artie Burns — each vital pieces of their defensive scheme — were high draft picks, but none is scheduled to make more than $3 million in 2017. Vince Williams, who they foresee as a capable replacement for Lawrence Timmons, eats up very little of the cap as well. And with James Harrison, who was brought back on the cheap after a tremendous and age-defying 2016, serving as both an excellent situational pass rusher and defensive mentor, there’s still a veteran presence in the linebacking corps despite Timmons’ departure.
(It’s worth noting the Steelers are, at this time, well under the projected salary cap, but with incoming rookies to sign, the negotiations of Bell’s long-term deal, Ross Cockrell and Alejandro Villanueva’s restricted free agent status and the possibility of extending soon-to-be free agent Shazier they need financial flexibility.)
But more to the point, the Steelers defense isn’t nearly as bad off as some would have you believe. Yes, Tom Brady carved the secondary up (384 yards, 3 touchdowns, 76 percent completion) in that 36-17 playoff drubbing. But that came near the end of one of the greatest seasons a quarterback has ever had, and considering what Brady did to the Falcons secondary in the second half of Super Bowl LI, Pittsburgh did a fairly credible job against New England.
And while Pittsburgh struggled in a handful of other games during 2016 — the Eagles, Cowboys, and Dolphins each manhandled Pittsburgh’s defense in the first half of the season — the defense was outright phenomenal down the stretch and in the playoffs, prior to its trip to New England. For all the talk of its awful secondary and lackluster pass rush, it still yielded less than 200 yards per game between Week 11 and the divisional round of the postseason.
It’s clear that this particular incarnation of the Steel Curtain defense isn’t quite as formidable or revered as many of its predecessors, be it in the 1970s, the 1990s or as recently as a few years back when it boasted multiple NFL Defensive Player of the Year winners, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu. And given the foreboding offensive nature of a few AFC rivals — the Patriots, the Raiders and to a lesser extent Indianapolis — an imposing, suffocating defense would be ideal.
But because the Steelers possess arguably the most balanced offense in the conference, and will presumably continue to improve with the 2017 return of healthy Ladarius Green and substance-free Martavis Bryant, they need to protect leads rather than try to hold their opponents under 20 points to win each week. And adding a mixture of veteran role players — like Alualu and Sensabaugh, with a few more capable rookies provides the depth to do just that.