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The Sports Daily > The Steelers N'at
2017 Steelers Draft Preview: Defense

With under a week to go until the NFL draft, the Steelers have plenty of needs to address on their current roster. While some believe the Steelers need to focus exclusively on defense in the upcoming Draft, the team has generally split their draft picks between offense and defense. The Steelers will have 8 picks in the draft with the awarding of a comp pick in the third round. Given that the Steelers have played their nickel defense in over 60% of snaps for each of the last 3 seasons, it is time to stop thinking of the Steelers in terms of a 3-4 defense. Simply put, the team doesn’t play a traditional 3-4 enough for it to be considered the “base” defense any more. It is better to think of the base defense as either a 2-4-5 or a 4-2-5 with 2 interior defensive linemen, 2 Edge Rushers, 2 inside linebackers, 3 corners, and 2 safeties.

By the Numbers

Total Defense: 342.6 yards per game (12th in NFL)
Passing Defense: 242.6 yards per game (16th in NFL)
Rushing Defense: 100.0 yards per game (13th in NFL)
Scoring Defense: 20.4 points per game (10th in NFL)
Sacks: 38 (9th in NFL)
Average Starting Field Position: Own 28.7 (21st in NFL)
Average Drive Time: 2:43 (25th in NFL)
Average Drive Length: 30.9 yards (16th in NFL)

Defensive Line

Returning Players: Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, Daniel McCullers, LT Walton, Johnny Maxey
New Arrivals: Tyson Alualu, Roy Philon, Lavon Hooks
The Departed: Ricardo Mathews

Draft Need: Medium-Low

Likelihood of Drafting: Medium

As mentioned previously, even though the Steelers are stylistically a 3-4 team, for all intents and purposes the nickel package with just two defensive linemen is their base defense. When healthy, Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt can both be dominant forces on the inside. Unfortunately, both missed time last season due to injuries. Javon Hargrave flashed in his rookie season. The Steelers brought in former Jaguars first round pick Tyson Alualu (who can best be described as “a slightly better Ziggy Hood”) in free agency to add depth to the unit. Alualu can play any position on the line but isn’t going to be as productive as Heyward or Tuitt. He is a good enough depth option to play a rotational role. This leaves Daniel McCullers, LT Walton and Johnny Maxey battling over the last few spots on the depth chart and in the rotation. Both McCullers and Walton are former 6th round picks and while the Steelers don’t need a starter here, it is possible they use another late-round selection on a rotational defensive lineman.

EDGE Rusher

Returning Players: Bud Dupree, James Harrison, Arthur Moats, Anthony Chickillo
New Arrivals: Jason Fanaika, Farrington Huguenin
The Departed: Jarvis Jones

Draft Need: High

Likelihood of Drafting: High

Edge Rusher is the Steelers greatest need heading into the 2017 Draft. James Harrison was re-signed this offseason after being the most consistent pass rusher last season. Bud Dupree missed half the season with an injury but showed flashes by racking up 4.5 sacks over the final 7 games. Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo are decent depth options but aren’t capable of stepping into a long-term starter role. Losing Jarvis Jones in Free Agency was no great loss as he never reached his first round potential. At this point, the Steelers need to look to the future and select someone to anchor the other side across from Dupree. This is not a guarantee that the Steelers will take an outside linebacker in the first round, but it is definitely a top priority in the first three rounds of the draft (with the possibility of double-dipping later on in Day 3).

Inside Linebacker

Returning Players: Ryan Shazier, Vince Williams, Tyler Matakevich, Steven Johnson, LJ Fort
New Arrivals: Akil Blount
The Departed: Lawrence Timmons

Draft Need: Medium-High

Likelihood of Drafting: Medium-High

With Lawrence Timmons signing in Miami, Vince Williams is slated to step into the starting role next to Ryan Shazier. The Steelers opinion of Williams as a starter should be apparent fairly early in the draft. If they feel Williams is capable of being a starter, they will likely wait on an inside linebacker until a later round. If not, players like Zach Cunningham (Vanderbilt), Jarrad Davis (Florida) or Tyus Bowser (Houston) could be the first round pick. Another possibility is that the Steelers view Williams as a capable 1st and 2nd down linebacker and will use an early pick on a safety that would enable them to play a “big dime” package with 3 corners and 3 safeties like they did at times last year when Timmons came off the field on third downs. Nevertheless, the need for a player (whether it is an inside linebacker or safety) to play in the box on third downs to defend both the run and the pass is a need for the Steelers heading into the Draft.

Cornerback

Returning Players: Artie Burns, Ross Cockrell, William Gay, Senquez Golson (IR), Al-Hajj Shabazz, Brandon Dixon (PS), Mike Hilton (PS)
New Arrivals: Coty Sensabaugh, Devonte Johnson, Greg Ducre
The Departed: Justin Gilbert

Draft Need: Medium-High

Likelihood of Drafting: High

The Steelers added Coty Sensabaugh in free agency to a defensive backfield that got torched in the AFC Championship Game in New England. Artie Burns will be a Day 1 starter this year after stepping into the role halfway through his rookie season. Ross Cockrell signed his RFA tender and is on a 1-year deal with the team and will likely be the other starting corner. Sensabaugh is capable of playing in the slot, along with stalwart veteran William Gay (who started to show some signs of regression last year). Senquez Golson has spent his first two years with the team on IR and the next snap he plays will be his first, so it is hard to say if the team can count on him for anything at this point. This leaves the Steelers in a position where they could use an upgrade at the second starting cornerback spot, so it would not be a surprise to see corner addressed early in the draft.

Safety

Returning Players: Mike Mitchell, Sean Davis, Robert Golden, Jordan Dangerfield, Jacob Hagen (PS)
New Arrivals: none
The Departed: Shamarko Thomas

Draft Need: Medium

Likelihood of Drafting: Medium

The top three on the safety depth chart are likely set. Mike Mitchell has two years remaining on his deal and makes enough plays that his spot in the lineup is secure. Second round pick Sean Davis came on over the later half of his rookie year and flashed in both run defense and pass defense. Robert Golden is an acceptable backup but can’t be counted on for long stretches of time. Jordan Dangerfield played well in run defense when he was forced into action last year but is a bit of a liability in pass coverage. The Steelers have their two starters at safety for the foreseeable future, so why would they draft one? As mentioned during the “Inside Linebacker” discussion, a hybrid in-the-box safety (like Jabrill Peppers or Budda Baker) could be appealing to the Steelers as they could play in the old Troy Polamalu “rover” type role, either rushing or dropping into coverage, on passing downs. Given that the Steelers were in their nickel defense over 70% of the time last season, there would be plenty of opportunity for a “coverage linebacker”/”in the box safety” to see the field.