Much like the offense, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense has a blend of veteran and new talent that could surprise opponents this season.
For the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense, they have consistently gotten better since losing Ryan Shazier two years ago. The Steelers have targeted some help via free agency this year, signing linebackers Mark Barron and Anthony Chickillo, cornerback Steven Nelson and re-signing the massive defensive tackle Daniel McCullers.
They’ve also done a great job the past three drafts, where they have taken three straight defensive players in the first round. Securing T.J. Watt in the first round of 2017, Terrell Edmunds in the first round of 2018, and Devin Bush in the first round of 2019 sends a clear message that the Steelers want young talent on the defensive side.
That decision is starting to pay off, as the Steelers’ defense has been a lot quicker to the ball this training camp. Players are flying around the field, and it has been noticeable. Players like Bud Dupree are trying to impress early on in their contract year, while players like Devin Bush aren’t wasting any time adjusting to the NFL.
Let’s take a look at who fills out the Steelers’ roster on the defensive side:
Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu, Isaiah Buggs, Lavon Hooks, Conor Sheehy, Winston Craig, Henry Mondeaux
We all know that Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt will man the ends of the defense. Heyward has spent the past 8 seasons with the Steelers, and has been as reliable as they come. Same goes for Tuitt, who has spent the past 4 seasons with the Steelers. The team hopes to get more production out of the two this season.
Beyond that, the Steelers will likely look to keep two depth players out of this group, with versatility being a big attraction. Alualou is a likley lock after receiving a two-year extension this offseason. He has been the main substitute at defensive end, with the ability to play a zero-technique if needed.
The real battle will be between Buggs and Hooks for that second backup spot. Buggs was drafted in the sixth round this offseason and likely has a bit of an edge with his versatility. Hooks has spent some time on the Steelers’ practice squad, so they obviously see something in him.
Sheehy, Craig and Mondeaux will battle for the practice squad.
Javon Hargrave, Daniel McCullers, Casey Sayles, Greg Gilmore
There won’t be much of a battle here, with the Steelers likely keeping two players out of this group. Javon Hargrave has spent the past three seasons in Pittsburgh and hasn’t missed a game since joining the league. He will start at nose tackle in Tomlin’s 3-4 scheme.
Daniel McCullers seems like the clear cut choice for the backup role. It’s really his spot to lose, as Sayles and Gilmore will likely be battling for a spot on the practice squad. McCullers will look to add to his 2.5 career sacks in 2019.
T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Anthony Chickillo, Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, Sutton Smith, JT Jones, Tuzar Skipper
Ever since being drafted the Steelers in 2017, Watt has become better and scarier. After tallying 7 sacks in his first year, he followed that up with 13 last season with an impressive 6 forced fumbles. Expect him to play a big role on the Steelers’ defense this year.
Bud Dupree is a former first-round pick of the Steelers in 2015. In his 4 years with the team, he hasn’t reached his full potential and will need to show that in 2019 as he enters the final year of his contract.
Behind Watt and Dupree, the Steelers will likely keep one player, but could keep two backups — they kept three outside linebackers last season. Chickillo, Adeniyi and Smith are currently battling for that backup spot. Chickillo has spent the past four years with Pitt, and likely has an edge right now. Adeniyi and Smith have shown potential, with Adeniyi having an edge over Smith.
Jones and Skipper will be battling for a spot on the practice squad.
Vince Williams, Mark Barron, Devin Bush, Tyler Matakevich, Ulysees Gilbert III, Robert Spillane, Tegray Scales, Ryan Shazier (PUP)
Last year, the Steelers had 5 inside linebackers on their roster, but that could change to 4 this season if they choose to keep 4 outside linebackers. To start training camp, the battle for inside linebacker has been heating up.
Devin Bush looks like he’s been in the NFL a long time, and will likely do a lot of damage alongside Vince Williams, with Mark Barron seeing a lot of action as well. These three will continue to battle for more reps as preseason begins.
Beyond that, things get tight — especially if the Steelers only keep one more out of this group. Matakevich and Gilbert III are currently leading the battle. Matakevich has spent the past 4 years with the Steelers after being drafted by the team in the seventh round, but Pittsburgh just used a sixth-round pick on Gilbert III this season.
Spillane and Scales will be battling for a practice squad spot.
Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Mike Hilton, Artie Burns, Cameron Sutton, Justin Layne, Brian Allen, Marcelis Branch, Derrek Thomas
The top-three spots in this group are pretty much locked. Joe Haden will look to cover the opposing team’s top receiver. Nelson was added through free agency this year, and will suit up alongside Haden as a starter. Hilton will resume as the featured nickel cornerback, as he has done a good job in that role. Hilton was also seen taking snaps at safety in training camp.
Outside of those three, the playing field gets a little tight. Last season, the Steelers had five cornerbacks on their roster. Artie Burns is a former first-round pick, but hasn’t lived up to expectations and was even benched last season. Cameron Sutton has also struggled to live up to expectations with the team.
Justin Layne is a third-round pick from this year’s draft and is a strong candidate to make the roster in 2019. Brian Allen has also shown some potential, with Branch and Thomas likely battling for the practice squad.
Special teams’ ability will play a major role in roster fits.
Sean Davis, Terrell Edmunds, Jordan Dangerfield, Marcus Allen, Kam Kelly, Dravon Askew-Henry, P.J. Locke
Davis and Edmunds are locks as the starting safeties for the 2019 season. Davis has been with the team for 3 years and has tallied 5 interceptions and 20 passes defensed. Edmunds, who was expected to play backup last season, was thrust into the lineup as a starter due to the Burnett injury. He will have big expectations in year two.
Dangerfield has spent time with the Steelers’ practice squad and 53-man roster, and will likely find more playing time this season. Marcus Allen will have a lot to prove as he enters this season healthy.
Kelly spent last year in the AAF and signed with the Steelers this offseason. Askew-Henry and Locke are rookies looking to prove they belong.
Last season, the Steelers had 6 safeties on their roster, so ability to play special teams will likely dictate who cracks the 53-man.