Steelers' Next Steps: The Defense

Jim Wexell breaks down the Pittsburgh Steelers by unit to provide answers about their offseason direction.

As mentioned in Part I of "Next Steps," Steelers fans in general weren't pleased with coaching, and because of the statistics they're not pleased with defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau in particular.

The loud and outraged believe LeBeau's too old, at 77, and that his methods are outdated.

I don't buy it. I just believe his unit needed the bigger rebuilding job, and this past season saw LeBeau get most of it completed with some talent that's still not yet ripe, and a unit, the secondary, that's been the last to receive attention in the draft. So let's start there with the secondary, as I wrap up the second part of this overview:

SECONDARY -- Three-fourths of the group that opened this past season won't be in the starting lineup next season. Cortez Allen was the first to lose his job. The 26-year-old was given a four-year extension on the eve of the opener because, sources say, ownership was panic-stricken upon the realization that three of their top four cornerbacks were entering the final years of their contacts.

Allen played poorly, then injured his knee, then injured his thumb, then lost his job, and was finally put on injured reserve at the start of December. Brice McCain took his place and played well.

On the other side, William Gay had replaced the injured Ike Taylor, and when Taylor returned he replaced McCain. But Taylor didn't perform as well as McCain had, so the brass finally settled on Gay and McCain as their starting cornerbacks and Antwon Blake as the nickel back.

Going forward, McCain, as I see it, is the team's No. 1 priority among its own free agents. McCain says he wants to stay in Pittsburgh, but the market may beckon the 28-year-old.

Could the Steelers turn to Allen? Well, the staff must decide whether his is a problem with technique or if he's just too slow. If it's the latter, they may have to cut a guy to whom they just gave over $6 million in signing bonus last September.

If they keep Allen, they'll have to pay him a $3 million roster bonus in March. And if they cut him, they would save that bonus and $1.5 million against the cap.

If the Steelers can't re-sign McCain, drafting a cornerback in the first round would be imperative. The best cornerback in this draft class is Marcus Peters, but he was thrown off his team at Washington and would likely be off the Steelers' board. The next group -- all possibilities to last until pick 22 -- is led by Stanford's Alex Carter (5-11 3/4, 200, 4.4), the 20-year-old son of former NFL cornerback Tom Carter. The other considerations in the first round should be P.J. Williams (5-11 5/8, 196, 4.4) and Trae Waynes (6-0 5/8, 183, 4.4+), both two years older than Carter.

If the Steelers do re-sign McCain, perhaps they can take a blue-chip corner -- Ifo Ekpre-Olomu of Oregon -- in the second round and allow him a year to rehabilitate an ACL torn in December.

At safety, the great Troy Polamalu isn't the bolt of lightning he has been in the past, but he still played well, particularly before a knee injury dragged him down late in the season. Polamalu was still a factor in the box, but he struggled in coverage and, in looking at Shamarko Thomas waiting in line behind him, Polamalu will likely retire.

The only secondary member in line to start a second consecutive opener is the one who struggled the most, free safety Mike Mitchell. He says he struggled with a torn groin, Mike Tomlin is showing no indication he'll part with Mitchell. It must also be remembered that Ryan Clark struggled through his first year or so as a free-agent acquisition before becoming a key cog in the 2008 championship run.

LINEBACKER -- Many of the problems at this position were resolved this season, particularly inside where Sean Spence recovered from his knee injury to take the job that had been given to rookie first-round pick Ryan Shazier on the first day of spring practice. That was a surprise move by a staff that likes to make rookies work for a job, but the Steelers had no way of knowing Spence would recover his speed. They also wanted to move Lawrence Timmons over into the captain's chair, the buck inside linebacker.

Now, the Steelers have four solid ILBs including Vince Williams, and true competition will be the rule next camp.

Problems remain outside, where James Harrison replaced injured Jarvis Jones and is contemplating another year. Jones hasn't been much of a threat as a pass-rusher since being drafted first in 2013, but LeBeau is convinced Jones will develop into "a very good player."

On the other side, Jason Worilds and Arthur Moats are free agents, and Moats might be the wiser target since he'll come more cheaply. But Worilds will only be 27 in March. If he comes back at a reasonable price, great, but if he expects another tag in the $10 million range, the Steelers may as well tap the rich pool of edge rushers in the draft.

Players such as Vic Beasley, Bud Dupree and Dante Fowler could be available in the first round, and players such as Lorenzo Mauldin, Owa Odighizuwa and Trey Flowers should be available in the second round. There are a variety of shapes and sizes, weak side or strong side, from which to pick this draft season.

The Steelers also have a quick, skinny OLB they kept all last season on their practice squad, so Howard Jones may have a chance next season if he adds weight.

DEFENSIVE LINE -- One of the most difficult jobs a GM has is rebuilding his lines, and it appears the Steelers have completed the heavy lifing on both of theirs. Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward will be great bookends on the defensive line for years to come. Nose tackles Steve McLendon and Daniel McCullers repeatedly tore apart Baltimore's center in the playoff game. Depth is needed, and perhaps Brett Keisel can return for another year to provide some of it. The Steelers also have Cam Thomas, a free agent acquisition who played poorly. Cutting Thomas would save the Steelers $2 million against the cap, but they would need to draft a DE in the middle rounds to replace him and/or Keisel.

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR'S DREAM DRAFT: 1. Alex Carter, CB; 2. Owa Odighizuwa, OLB; 3. Henry Anderson, DE; 4. Cody Prewitt, FS.


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