Steelers' Star Search: Defense

NFL free agency expert Dale Lolley is focused on defenders as potential Steelers.

With nearly every meaningful player set to return on offense for 2015, the Pittsburgh Steelers are set on that side of the ball.

But defensively the Steelers are something of a mess.

Coming off a season in which they ranked 18th in the league in both scoring and total defense – a pair of statistics that didn’t help former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau make his argument to stay – the Steelers also have quite a few holes to fill and some positions to upgrade.

No, Pittsburgh isn’t about to dive into the free agent market and come back up with Justin Houston or Ndamukong Suh, but Pittsburgh will have enough cash available to find one or two mid-level free agents.

What the Steelers do in free agency could also give us the first look into new defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s plans for 2015.

Team president Art Rooney II said the team needs to improve its pass rush, and there are certainly a number of players available who could help with that, but fixing a leaky secondary also will be a priority.

Much will depend on who the Steelers can or choose to re- sign among their own free agents.

But here’s a look at who will interest Pittsburgh once the free agency period begins March 11:

Leonard Johnson, CB, Tampa Bay – Tampa Bay’s nickel corner the past three seasons, Johnson has been a productive, under-the-radar kind of player. In his three seasons in Tampa Bay, he’s not missed a game and started 17 times. He’s also picked off five passes – returning two for touchdowns - and forced five fumbles, including three last season when he had 45 tackles as well. Johnson doesn’t have great straight-line speed, but he’s solid in the slot with a nose for the ball.

Chris Culliver, CB, San Francisco – A former third-round pick out of South Carolina, Culliver is just coming into his own as a cornerback. After missing the 2013 season with a torn ACL, the 6-0, 200-pound rebounded nicely with 45 tackles in 14 games – all starts – last season, picking off four passes and knocking down 14 passes. Culliver didn’t help himself with some homophobic comments prior to the Super Bowl two years ago – he quickly apologized – but he’s certainly not the first guy to say something stupid and then retract it. No. he’s not a No. 1 corner, but he’s more of a proven commodity than anyone with the Steelers not named William Gay. And with the 49ers right up against the salary cap, they likely can’t afford him.

Signing Culliver would allow the Steelers to move William Gay back into the slot – assuming Cortez Allen gets his issues worked out.

Patrick Robinson, CB, New OrleansSaints fans can’t wait for former first-round draft pick Robinson to leave town. And with the Saints well over next year’s salary cap, that’s going to happen. But throw out what happened to the Saints defense in 2014. Rob Ryan’s defense leaves the corners on an island with very little help far too often. Even with that, Robinson returned from a season-ending patella injury suffered in 2013 to record 39 tackles, two interceptions and 11 pass defenses, despite losing his starting job for a time. He had a combined seven interceptions in 2011 and 2012 prior to his injury. A change of scenery could do this guy some good and give the Steelers some flexibility.

Brandon Flowers, CB, San Diego – Flowers makes the list this year after a bounce-back season with San Diego. He’s just 5-9, but Flowers is a physical cover corner with good hands, as his 20 career interceptions – including three last season – would suggest. He’ll turn 29 this month, which isn’t ideal, but a two or three-year deal might get it done. He missed some time here and there with little injuries, which is a concern. Flowers made $3 million on his one-year deal last season and will be looking for a raise from that. He might be too rich for the Steelers’ tastes.

Jabaal Sheard, OLB, Cleveland – After recording 21 sacks in 45 games, all starts, in his first three seasons with the Browns, Sheard fell out of favor with the new coaching staff in Cleveland. That’s fine. That might lower the 25-year-old’s price tag a bit. The former Pitt star had his best season as a rookie in 2011, recording 8.5 sacks and forcing five fumbles. His sack totals have fallen every season since, but because the Browns have trailed so often, opponents haven’t necessarily been forced to throw much. The Steelers are well acquainted with Sheard from his days at Pitt – Mike Tomlin always makes it a point to know their better guys. Sheard could be a nice, cheap option as an edge rusher if the Steelers lose Jason Worilds.

Akeem Ayers, LB, New England – After being traded from Tennessee to New England, the 6-3, 255-pound Ayers had a decent season for the Patriots, recording four sacks and an interception while playing a hybrid linebacker. He was also a solid special teams player for the Patriots. Ayers is also well acquainted with Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake, who was on the staff at UCLA when Ayers was there. Ayers isn’t a world beater, but he’s the kind of versatile player the Steelers covet and could be a rotational guy.

Brandon Graham, OLB, Philadelphia – A former first-round draft pick, Graham has been used mainly as a situational pass rusher for the Eagles, since he hasn’t been great against the run. But he was better last season rotating with Trent Cole and Connor Barwin. Graham had 47 tackles, 5.5 sacks and four forced fumbles – right around the same production the Steelers got from James Harrison – in about 100 more snaps than Harrison. Again, he would be a candidate to replace Worilds.

Karl Klug, DE, Tennessee – At a listed 6-3, 278 pounds, Klug doesn’t have ideal size to play end in the Steelers’ 3-4, but he can step in as a pass rusher. This is a guy who has 14.5 sacks in four seasons – including seven as a rookie in 2011 – as a rotational guy. If the Steelers want to give true 4-3 looks in their nickel package, this is the right kind of low-cost, high-upside player. As an added bonus, Klug spent the 2014 season playing under Ray Horton, so learning the verbiage won’t take forever.

Corey Peters, DE, Atlanta – Peters has been a guy who has provided some pass rush from the interior in his five seasons in Atlanta, mostly as a starter. But he lost his starting job last season after tearing his Achilles’ tendon at the end of the 2013 season. In 2014 he had 26 tackles and two sacks after recording a career-best five sacks in 2013. Peters also was born in Pittsburgh. He took a minimum prove-it deal last year with Atlanta and could be worked into a rotation with Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt to give the Steelers defensive line depth.

Da’Norris Searcy, SS, Buffalo – He isn’t a household name, but he does a lot of things the Steelers like. A fourth-round selection out of North Carolina in 2011, the 26-year-old Searcy made 13 starts for Buffalo in 2014, recording 65 tackles with three interceptions and half a sack. He also forced a fumble. In 2013, in more of a nickel role, Searcy had 71 tackles, 3.5 sacks and an interception. He also recorded six tackles on special teams last season. While not a big-name player, Searcy will be coveted by a number of teams in free agency as a reasonably priced safety. If the Steelers don’t trust Shamarko Thomas to stay healthy – which has been an issue – Searcy would be a solid addition to their secondary as a replacement for Troy Polamalu.

Rahim Moore, S, Denver – Best remembered for giving up a long touchdown against Baltimore in the playoffs a couple of years ago in the AFC Championship Game, the 25-year-old rebounded in 2014 by recording 49 tackles and picking off four passes while also forcing a pair of fumbles. He’s more of a free safety-type due to his lack of top-end speed, but the Steelers could shift Mike Mitchell to strong safety and allow him to play more in the box where he can attack the line of scrimmage. Moore also played for Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake at UCLA, so there’s some familiarity.

(Dale Lolley appears courtesy of the Observer-Reporter.)

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