The first of these "panic zones" is at linebacker. The team traditionally has ample depth within the linebacking corps, but a unique problem has emerged this season. The Steelers have only 4 linebackers on their roster that could start for any other team. Coincidentally these are the four incumbents: Kendrell Bell, Joey Porter, Jason Gildon, and James Farrior. However, the talent level drops off radically beyond the big quartet.
ILB John Fiala is currently the backup linebacker for Farrior and Larry Foote is the replacement for Bell. Neither player is anywhere close to being ready to play every down. The problem further becomes highlighted with the impending release of Fiala (who understands this defense) in training camp due to the salary cap. This leaves Foote and special teams standout Clint Krietwaldt as the only backers ready. Foote looked lost and undersized during the playoff game against the Titans. Krietwaldt was signed for special teams purposes only. That's some slim pickings.
The OLB situation is even more tenuous. Porter and Gildon are backed up by Clark Haggans and rookie Alonzo Jackson. The problem here is that Haggans can only be considered a 3rd down, pass rush specialist and Jackson shouldn't be counted on to help the rush this season, if at all.
The bottom line of the linebacking corps is that the talent drop-off is so extreme that the Steelers don't have any future starters to back up the current incumbents. A case could be made for Haggans, but Gildon with one arm would strike more fear into a right tackle than Haggans. In seasons past, the Steelers had a plethora of young LB talent ready to take over. Gildon, Porter, Carlos Emmons, and Earl Holmes kept the seats warm for the likes of Chad Brown, Kevin Greene, Levon Kirkland, Greg Lloyd, and Jerry Olsavsky.
The key word here is solid, not fantastic, not amazing, but solid.
After those three, the rest of the crowd is anything but solid. Hank Poteat, Chidi Iwuoma, and Ivan Taylor will all battle for backup roles, but none would have a shot at a starting position on any NFL team.
It's an interesting footnote in the Bill Cowher era that the Steelers have always had questionable cornerback depth. This is evident by the desperate moves to switch Carnell Lake to cornerback and the huge contract extensions to Scott and Washington. Cowher's lost only three starting cornerbacks to free agency - Willie Williams, Rod Woodsen, and D.J. Johnson. The fact is that PIttsburgh cornerbacks have never been too attractive on the open market.
Further, the lack of depth at linebacker and cornerback creates a difficult situation with the new defensive formations.
As advertised, the Steelers plan to use more nickle formations this season, but if they lose a starting cornerback, the team would be forced to play "dime" again. Currently, Townsend is the nickle back, but if one of the top-three corners goes down the Steelers will be forced to insert Poteat, Iwuoma, or Taylor as the nickle back. None of the options sound particularly appealing; therefore the Steelers would most likely switch to a dime formation and use a safety as the extra DB.
And if the Steelers move back to the dime, the changes to keep Bell on the field have been neutralized - All because of one injury.