INDIANAPOLIS – Defensive playmakers. That's what the Steelers need, and this is a week where the process of finding them, identifying the ones who will fit in with the rest of your team, and trying to project whether the ball skills they have shown to this point in their football lives will transfer to the NFL level.
Player workouts don't begin until Thursday, but today was, for lack of an official label, media day, when teams offered up their coach or general manager to the room. When General Manager Kevin Colbert faced the expected barrage of Antonio Brown questions, he did so with primarily the same answers he had given back in Pittsburgh on Feb. 20, but eventually the subject turned to what is the major on-field issue facing the team this offseason.
That would be finding defensive playmakers, especially defensive playmakers on the back end, because over the past two seasons the same unit that posted 108 sacks and more than twice that number of pressures on opposing quarterbacks managed to parlay all of that pressure into only 37 takeaways, with just 24 of those being interceptions.
To recap, the Steelers defense faced 1,243 pass attempts over the previous two seasons and had only 24 interceptions, a 1.9 interception percentage.
Not good enough, and clearly not good at all.
"Look, we've sacked the quarterback at a very good rate, but our takeaways are not very good at all," said Colbert. "It's really reflective on the players we have back there. What we want to look at, what we want to value looking forward is let's value the takeaway-capable guys who have shown they've been able to do that in college.
"Our game has always been about getting physical players who can come off the edge and close off the edge and make a tackle. But are they doing that at the expense of not making plays on the football? We have to maybe try to find that balance and maybe be more open to the concept that the game is constantly changing and if you want playmakers in the back end, then find someone who has done it."
The Steelers ended the 2018 season with 10 defensive backs on their 53-man roster, and what those guys accomplished in college in the category of takeaways can be viewed as a mixed bag.
Cam Sutton played 44 college games and finished with seven interceptions, 30 passes defensed, and two fumble recoveries. In 38 games at Maryland, Sean Davis had five interceptions, 14 passes defensed, and seven forced fumbles. Joe Haden had eight interceptions in 40 games at Florida. Coty Sensabaugh finished with four interceptions and 14 passes defensed in 52 college games.
Artie Burns had seven interceptions, six in his final season, in 34 games at Miami. Marcus Allen played 49 games at Penn State and had one interception and five forced fumbles. Mike Hilton had six interceptions, 26 passes defensed, and four forced fumbles in 36 college games. For Brian Allen, it was five interceptions and nine passes defensed in 26 games. Six interceptions, 14 passes defensed, and two fumble recoveries in 35 games for Terrell Edmunds; and 14 interceptions in 40 games for Morgan Burnett.
Some of those college statistics could be seen as promising, such as Burns' six interceptions in his last season for the Hurricanes, but as Burns' career has shown so far, college statistics don't necessarily transfer to the NFL.
"You would think that it would," said Colbert about college statistics being an indicator of NFL production, "but sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't. Artie Burns had five great interceptions (among his total of six) as a senior at Miami, and right now Artie is trying to find his game. He had more interceptions than all but one other cornerback in that draft that year. You hoped that would transfer and early it showed that it might, but right now he has to re-find it."
And th Steelers have to find themselves those defensive playmakers.
Colbert also addressed other issues:
He doubled-down on the idea of the Steelers requiring significant compensation for any trade of Antonio Brown:
"Honestly, Antonio is one of the best players in the National Football League. For us to take him from our team and let him go somewhere else, not only would we be subtracting a great player but we also may be giving him to a competitor. So we have to benefit. It has to benefit us, because why would we just want to benefit another team? People may or not believe us, but that's our stance. We need significant compensation for this to happen. I can't speak to what other teams feel, but I know this: I totally have faith in Antonio Brown, not only as a football player, but as a father and as a man."
And even though the "how" still has to be worked out, Ryan Shazier will have a new contract and will be a part of the Steelers in 2019:
"We're not comfortable talking about it until we get clarification from the league, because it's a unique situation. What I am comfortable in saying is that Ryan will be a part of the football roster in some form in 2019. We just have to figure out what's legal in terms of the NFL rules, and we're in the process of doing that. To be a member of the football part of the roster, yes, he has to have a contract. I can't speak for him, but he wants to try to play football again, and we'll support him. There's no ceiling on what we would ever say to him as far as him wanting to do that. That's totally up to him, and we'll support him in his rehab. He continues to rehab, he continues to improve. He'll be part of the football roster, and once we make the final determination as to how that has to work, we'll make that announcement."