Steelers' Glaring Red Zone Weakness

Steelers fans want a big receiver to improve the team's red zone offense. But what about the red zone defense? M.C. Steel takes a look.

It's not where most Steeler fans have been focusing their attention. The predominant clamoring has been for the Steelers to improve their red zone offense with a big receiving target. But while the Steelers' offense finished a mediocre 16th in red-zone efficiency, the defense finished at a slightly worse 17th.

So, beyond the obvious that they're both important, which is more important?

The Steelers' most successful seasons over the past decade were 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2010. Within the decade, those are the seasons when they had their deepest playoff runs. In those seasons, the Steelers finished 7th, 7th, 3rd, and 4th in the NFL in red zone defense. In those same seasons, the Steelers finished 21st, 4th, 14th, and and 15th in red zone offense. Three mediocre red zone offensive seasons compared to defenses that finished no worse then 7th.

It's also interesting to note the Steelers' improvement from 2004 to 2005 after the Steelers lost Plaxico Burress in free agency. Granted, a big part of it was the growth of Ben Roethlisberger from Year 1 to 2. The case could also be made that the addition of Heath Miller and the use of Willie Parker between the 5 and 20 played roles as well.

Fast forward to today. Miller is still there. By the end of this past year, Ben was playing as good or better than he's ever played. The Steelers have their bell cow at tailback. Their All Pro and first-round pick Maurkice Pouncey returns. The addition of Mike Munchak to a young offensive line just might be the equivalent of adding another first-round pick.

But what about the defense? The defensive descent from 4th in 2010 to 14th, 13th, and 17th in red zone efficiency has to be considered as one of the main reasons this team hasn't won a playoff game since, or even made the playoffs the last two seasons.

Is next year going to get any better with the way the roster is currently constructed?

As of now, it looks like the Steelers will start safeties who are 5-10 and 5-9, Troy Polamalu and Shamarko Thomas, respectively. The latter being an inexperienced second-year player. Add to that mix two inside linebackers who are 6-1 or shorter. Like everyone else, I'm pulling for Sean Spence to make it back, and let's say he miraculously returns to form. Do we want Spence and Thomas in the middle going up against Rob Gronkowski? Or Tyler Eifert, Jordan Cameron, or Dennis Pitta?

Meanwhile, the Seattle Seahawks finished second in the NFL in red zone defense this season. They also finished first in giveaway/takeaway at +20. They've done it primarily with a secondary whose shortest starting defender is 6-1.

The Steelers have been struggling for a few years now to create turnovers. Having a secondary that can shrink throwing windows would go a long way toward creating more of them, and improve their most glaring weakness: red zone defense.

I like the future of Shamarko Thomas. However, the Steelers must see it as a necessity to draft a safety with some length that can complement Thomas' skill set.

Since the Steelers will go with a 5-9 safety and likely two 6-1 ILBs, it would be wise to also invest in a corner with size. In this way they can shrink throwing windows both in the inside and on the outside of the defense. Having a corner who can take away fades and back-shoulder throws can potentially cause tipped passes that lead to interceptions, and they can make a quarterback hold the ball longer and allow developing rushers such as Jason Worilds, Jarvis Jones, and Cameron Heyward to get there.

That to me seems the route the Steelers need to take to improve turnover production and their red zone defense.

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