James Harrison covered up a big problem last season, and that problem could actually be a structural one for a team that believes it can continue using OLB/DE hybrids as edge rushers in their nickel defense.
The nickel defense has become the base defense for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who seemingly refuse to acknowledge that. They still consider themselves a base 3-4 defense, even though they use that "base" only 25 percent of the time.
Will DC Keith Butler expand on that 4-3 with Cam Heyward back from injury?
He may be tempted with the development of Javon Hargrave as an interior pass-rusher.
The bigger question is this: What happens when (if?) Harrison runs out of gas?
The man is now 39 years old. Last year he stepped in at midseason and the Steelers didn't lose until New England. Dupree's return off the PUP list helped that win streak, as did the promotion of rookie Sean Davis to a starting safety spot.
But the stats of the run defense say that Harrison deserves more of the credit.
Jarvis Jones' last play as a starter -- the meaningless Cleveland finale notwithstanding -- was Ezekiel Elliott's game-winning bolt through the right side of the Steelers' defense, where Jones was not only pushed out of the way but was playing the wrong technique. The coaches finally had enough of Jones, and Harrison replaced him the following week. Harrison wasn't near the pass-rushing terror of his storied prime, but he was a beast in the run game.
In the 265-pound Harrison's 10 starts, the Steelers allowed 3.4 rushing yards per attempt and 68.7 rushing yards per game.
In the 248-pound Jones' nine starts, the Steelers allowed 5.4 rushing yards per attempt and 101.4 rushing yards per game.
Remember, Art Rooney II, in his January remarks, said that improving the pass rush is important, but it must be done while maintaining consistency against the run.
With that in mind, a 3-4 outside linebacker typically cannot do what Harrison does physically against the run out of that nickel front. As for his coverage duties, Harrison satisfied those with the experience accrued from 14 seasons in the league.
"He understands the weakness of the defense," was how Butler explained it.
But, hey, even though Harrison possessed this understanding, Tom Brady possessed more of it, and dropping the defensive ends into coverage as often as the Steelers did in the AFCCG last season only came off as absurd game-planning.
So, with those guidelines, the Steelers next week presumably will make their second attempt to draft Harrison's heir apparent. He must be able to rush the passer, take on offensive tackles to stop the run, and drop into coverage.
Good luck with all of that.
But these are the top candidates:
* Taco Charlton (6-5 1/2, 277) stood up at times but that was just for looks. He doesn't drop, nor does he play with enough passion.
* Takk McKinley (6-2, 250) is quite the specimen but has his drawbacks: A.) He might not be cleared medically (shoulder) until Sept 1, and the Steelers don't want an injured player as the primary backup to a 39-year-old; and, B.) His agility times at the NFL Combine were the worst of all edge rushers, so dropping into coverage might not be possible.
* Carl Lawson (6-1 3/4, 261) is built like -- and posted nearly the identical times and measurements as -- LaMarr Woodley, who was drafted 46th in 2007. Lawson is so muscled up, and therefore stiff, that a return to his injury-plagued past is a legitimate concern.
* Derek Rivers (6-3 1/2, 248) of Youngstown State is agile enough (6.94 3-cone), fast enough (4.61 40) and strong enough (30 bench reps) to be that "Superman" who plays the run like a defensive end and drops into coverage like a linebacker. But Kevin Colbert has yet to draft a first-rounder out of a non D-I school.
* Jordan Willis (6-3 3/4, 255) worked his way into the conversation with stunning NFL Combine numbers, but the Steelers don't need another left side-only DE who can't turn the corner at the top of his pass-rush arc.
* Tarell Basham (6-3 3/4, 269) has late first-round potential as a pass-rusher, and the perfect last name for a pass-rusher, but cannot drop into coverage.
My take is they should just draft a DE without regard for his ability to drop into coverage. My take is they should consider going to a 4-3 with Heyward back from injury and use Dupree as the primary coverage end. But my take is clouded by my prediction that Colbert will remain steadfast in his search for a pass-rusher whose No. 2 job is dropping into coverage as opposed to taking on tackles in the nickel and stopping the run.
That said, I doubt Barnett or Harris will fall to them in the first round, so I'll wait on a pass-rusher in the second round. My favorite is Lawson, for whom I would consider trading up. Rivers is right behind Lawson in my rankings. Otherwise, there are several mid-round pass-rush specialists the Steelers brought in for visits who'll have to carry them until their "Superman" does come along.
As for the rest of the defensive line, I expect a late-round rotational tackle to be added, and possibly a nose tackle to compete with Big Dan McCullers for a backup job.
Second Round -- Carl Lawson (DE), Auburn; Derek Rivers (DE), Youngstown State.
Third Round -- Tanoh Kpassagnon (DE/DT), Villanova.
Seventh Round/UDFA -- Francis Kallon (DT), Georgia Tech.
* Are the Steelers still interested in Joe Mathis? Click here for the story.
* For the OLB half of the OLB/DE edge-rusher story, click here to read our segment on linebackers.