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Status report: Defense's depth chart

Posted Mar 19, 2014

This is a look at how free agency has impacted the Steelers' roster and depth chart on defense

So far in this free agency period, there has been more activity for the Steelers on the defensive side of their depth chart, and really, that’s as it should be. Following a season in which the team was tied for 29th in the league in interceptions, tied for 25th in sacks, 14th in points allowed, 17th in red zone efficiency, and worst of all, following a season in which the defense allowed 17 plays – five runs and 12 passes – of 40-plus yards, change was the only reasonable reaction.

The following is a position-by-position chronicling of how free agency so far has impacted their defense:

DEFENSIVE LINE
Offseason activity: Signed NT/DE Cam Thomas (San Diego); UFA Ziggy Hood signed with Jacksonville; UFA Al Woods signed with Tennessee
UFAs at this position: Brett Keisel
One definitive piece of good news to come from the 2013 season was the emergence of Cam Heyward as an impact player during what was his third NFL season. With the exception of Heyward, however, this unit entered the offseason facing mostly question marks.

During the opening week of free agency, Hood, the former first-round pick in 2010, and Woods had signed contracts with other AFC teams. Both of those players were backup-types for the Steelers during their time here, and the signing of Thomas was portrayed as a move to restore some of the depth lost as a result of their leaving.

Thomas is said to have the ability to play either end or nose in a 3-4, and since the same is often said about Steve McLendon, there could be a chance of some flip-flopping to get everyone in a spot where they’re most comfortable/effective.

The Steelers also have hosted Alex Carrington for a visit, but he missed all but three games in 2013 with a torn quadriceps, which is not a minor injury, and the team doesn’t have a lot of room under the salary cap until after June 1.

The Skinny: Even though signing Thomas helped, depth here still isn’t what it needs to be, because right now there are only six guys under contract – Heyward, McLendon, Thomas, Hebron Fangupo, Brian Arnfelt, and Nick Williams – and the team brought 11 defensive linemen to training camp last summer.

LINEBACKERS
Offseason activity: Placed the transition designation on Jason Worilds, who signed the one-year $9.754 million tender; OLB LaMarr Woodley was released; ILB Larry Foote was released;
UFAs at this position: Stevenson Sylvester, Jamaal Westerman
Maybe the signature decision of this offseason was how the team handled the whole Woodley-or-Worilds situation, and that played out even before free agency started when the Steelers tagged Worilds. The only remaining issue then became whether Woodley would be designated a post-June 1 cut, which is what ended up happening.

The other significant move was the release of Foote, a long-time starter over two separate tenures with the Steelers. Foote, 34 in April, spent just about all of 2013 on the injured reserve list after rupturing a biceps in the regular season opener.

With Woodley and Foote gone, the starters would be Worilds and Jarvis Jones on the outside, with Lawrence Timmons and Vince Williams on the inside. The other linebackers currently under contract include Kion Wilson, Sean Spence, Terence Garvin, Dan Molls, and Chris Carter.

The Skinny: The ifs would seem to weigh heavily here. As in, if Jarvis Jones blossoms in his second NFL season; and if Sean Spence is able to contribute after spending two years rehabilitating a knee injury. It’s not typically a high-percentage play to put a lot of hope on the ifs, but that’s where the Steelers are right now with respect to some of their linebackers. Signing a free agent here would make sense, and it’s a veritable certainly the Steelers will commit draft picks to fortify this unit as well.

DEFENSIVE BACKS
Offseason activity: Signed Troy Polamalu to a three-year contract; FS Mike Mitchell (Carolina) was signed; Ike Taylor restructured his contract to return for 2014; Will Allen was re-signed.
UFAs at this position: Ryan Clark
For all of the consternation among the team’s fans over the sub-standard performance against the run in 2013, improving the pass defense might be the more pressing issue because of the way the game is played these days.

Ten interceptions in each of the last two seasons is a number that’s woefully inadequate, and improving this total is going to be necessary for the Steelers to field the kind of defense that can help them compete for a championship.

Signing Mitchell should help, and keeping Polamalu and Taylor was the right thing to do, because regardless of what they are not at this stage of their careers, they still are among the key performers among the defensive personnel on the roster. Bringing Allen back for another season solidified the safety spot – don’t forget Shamarko Thomas – to a degree where the Steelers will be able to go through the draft without having to address the position.

The Skinny: It’s true that pressure and coverage go hand-in-hand, and it’s also true the Steelers need to improve both of those facets of their defense. Cornerback is an area where the team could use the infusion of some dynamic talent, which is what should be expected from the No. 15 pick of the first round.

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