5 for Friday: Steelers defense needs to be great

The Steelers defense was good in 2022. What it needs to be is "great and dominant," which is what head coach Mike Tomlin wanted it to be last season.

It was not that.

The Steelers finished 13th in yards allowed per game, 10th in points allowed, ninth in rushing yards allowed and eighth in yards per carry given up. They tied for the league lead with 20 interceptions.

But after leading the NFL in sacks a league-record five consecutive seasons, those dropped off to 40 last season, leaving them in a tie for 14th in the NFL. It was their lowest total since recording 38 in 2016.

The Steelers also were 19th in passing yards per game allowed – something that ties in directly to the lower sack total. As part of that, they gave up 7.5 yards per pass attempt and 12.2 yards per reception, both of which were in the bottom five in the league.

And they recovered just three fumbles and forced only nine, both of which were in the bottom five of the NFL, as well. Those last two numbers are perhaps the most amazing considering outside linebacker Alex Highsmith tied for the league lead with five forced fumbles.

Certainly, the defense was better and has been better since he's been a member of the Steelers, when T.J. Watt is available.

Last season, the Steelers had eight sacks, five takeaways and allowed 25.3 points and 389.9 yards per game in the seven games in which Watt was not available. They went 1-6 in those games.

With Watt, they went 8-2, allowing 16.9 points and 100 fewer yards per game while also recording 32 sacks and 18 takeaways.

So, keeping Watt healthy in 2023 is a must. But that goes without saying.

Beyond that, creating more pressure and not allowing deep passes goes hand in hand. If opposing teams don't feel they can protect long enough to push the ball down the field, they won't try it.

"We allowed too many balls to get over our heads last season," secondary coach Grady Brown admitted at minicamp. "We've got to clean that up."

Do that, and this defense can be dominant.

The Steelers don't need to lead the league in sacks in 2023, but they do need more than the 40 they had last season. And they need to come from more than just Watt, Highsmith and Cam Heyward, who combined for 30.5 last season despite Watt chipping in a career-low 5.5.

That trio creates one-on-one matchups for others. Those players must win their one-on-ones for the Steelers to be successful.

• The 33rd Team web site, which was created and is run by former NFL executive Mike Tannenbaum, recently posted a story asking several Pro Football Hall of Fame voters about players who are either "Locks, Likely or Potentially" going to be inducted into the Hall someday.

It's an exercise that web sites do this time of year when not much is happening with the league. But the list of players included on that list was what was galling.

For example, defensive tackle Nadmukong Suh was included on the list of "Potential" Hall of Fame players. So were edge rusher Myles Garrett and cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

Heyward, Watt and new Steelers cornerback Patrick Peterson weren't mentioned anywhere.

Pro Football Reference's Hall of Fame Index, which measures a player's career in terms of Hall of Fame worthiness, has Heyward at 61.78, Watt at 57.93 and Peterson at 84.80.

No offense to Garrett and Ramsey, but their ratings are 39.45 and 52.6, respectively. Only Suh, with a rating of 84.58 is truly worthy. And he's been in the NFL since 2010 and is currently without a team. He also has 71.5 career sacks, seven fewer than Heyward.

That none of the current Steelers were even mentioned was laughable.

• The start of training camp is now just three weeks away. This camp figures to be as competitive as any in recent team history.

A conservative estimate would say there are five starting spots up for grabs in camp. A more aggressive look at it would be that there could be as many as 10.

And that doesn't even take into account all of the other battles just to win a roster spot that will take place.

Tomlin likes to use the saying, 'Iron sharpens iron." There figures to be a lot of iron sharpened at this camp.

• It will be interesting to see Tomlin's first official depth chart.

That won't come out until about Aug. 8, a few days before the team plays its first preseason game against Tampa Bay, Aug. 11.

Hard as it is to believe that's just a month away.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

• The NFL has had a rough time this year finding a team to want to be the one featured on HBO's "Hard Knocks" this year.

For teams trying to generate interest and sell tickets, "Hard Knocks" made sense. But as it has worked its way around the league, front offices and coaches realized they don't want to open the windows to let the light in on what they're doing.

The show has been around since 2001, when it was a groundbreaking look behind the scenes of the Baltimore Ravens, who were coming off a Super Bowl season in 2000.

The first few seasons of the show were great. It was a real look inside what happens behind closed doors with an NFL team. But after a while, the off-field hijinks and sitting in on meetings began to get a little redundant.

And there's just something that leaves you with a dirty feeling of watching yet another player be released and have his dreams shattered.

The NFL and HBO signed a four-year deal to continue "Hard Knocks" back in 2020. Here's hoping that the league decides to end it there. The show just might have run its course.