Top five defensive story lines entering training camp

Ray Fittipaldo 7 years ago

On Friday we took a look at the top five offensive story lines entering training camp. Here are my top five defensive story lines entering camp. 

5. Living up to the hype.

The Steelers invested their past three first-round draft choices in linebackers, and it’s time for those players to make an impact. Injuries have held back 2013 first-rounder Jarvis Jones and 2014 Ryan Shazier. Jones missed nine games with a wrist injury last season and Shazier missed eight with ankle and knee injuries. The Steelers need both players to stay healthy and produce. Both showed flashes of their potential last season, but they have to play with consistency. Jones recorded two sacks in the first three games before getting injured. Bud Dupree is this year’s first-round pick, and it’s looking like he’ll be a situational player to begin the season. Perhaps the coaching staff looked back on Jones’ struggles two years ago when he was inserted as a starter as a rookie and had to be benched. Dupree can afford to learn behind veteran Arthur Moats, but it would help if he could provide some sacks, an area where the Steelers desperately need an upgrade. They finished last season ranked 26th in the NFL in sacks with 33. That’s a far cry from the 2010 AFC championship team that led the league with 48.

4. Cover someone

While the Steelers were 26th in sack production they were worse when it came to pass defense. They finished the season ranked 27th, allowing 253 yards passing per game. It’s true that pass rush and coverage work hand in hand in the Steelers’ defense, but if the Steelers don’t generate more pass rush the defensive backs have to do a better job of staying close to receivers. The front office addressed the issues in the back by drafting three defensive backs, including second- and fourth-round cornerbacks. Through OTAs and minicamp, cornerbacks Senquez Golson and Doran Grant were working behind starters Will Gay an Cortez Allen and nickel back Antown Blake. They have five weeks of training camp to show what they have, and defensive backs coach Carnell Lake seems intent on giving them a chance to get on the field as rookies.

3. Stuff the run

Once upon a time, teams didn’t even attempt to run the ball against the Steelers, who perennially ranked among the top rushing defenses in the NFL. That’s no longer the case. The Steelers finished last season ranked sixth in the league in run defense in 2014, but that’s misleading. They were ranked 25th with a 4.4 yards per attempt average. Only two other defenses had fewer rushing attempts against. It’s not that teams didn’t have success running against the Steelers; it’s just that they were so successful passing that they decided that was the best way to beat them. When the Steelers stop the run they can dial up exotic blitzes on second- and third-and-long. When opposing teams are constantly in second-and –third-and-short or medium they control the tempo of the game, and the Steelers have not proven capable in recent years of being effective with a mediocre rush defense. Nose Steve McLendon had shoulder surgery after missing four games last season. If he can stay healthy it should help, but it’s not solely on the nose tackle to get stouter against the run. The linebackers and defensive ends have to do a better job, too.

2. Turning it over

The Steelers were ranked 23rd in takeaways in 2014, with 11 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries. According to teams that won the turnover battle from 2008-12 won almost 80 percent of the time over that five year period. It’s especially important for a team that possesses one of the best returning offenses in the NFL. Anytime the Steelers give the back to their offenses it increases their chances of winning.

1. Will the philosophy change?

We really won’t find out until the regular season begins, but one thing to watch during camp will be discerning the differences between a Dick LeBeau-led defense and a Keith Butler-led defense. Butler said some things will change, but he wasn’t giving many hints as to how that might happen. About the only one was saying his defensive linemen will have more opportunities to rush the passer and make plays in the running game. There has been speculating about more blitzing or different blitzing schemes that could help free up pass rushers as opponents seemed to have caught on to the tendencies of Lebeau or his playbook. Having a new play caller could help the Steelers break those tendencies. Of course, the more Butler breaks tendencies the more he changes a formula that proved to be successful over a long period. Striking a balance between changing tendencies and relying on the assembled talent to play within the defense will perhaps be his most important and most difficult problem as a first-year coordinator.