The Pittsburgh Steelers made the NFL draft -- again -- a defensive affair. If the plan works, they won’t have to in 2017.
The defensive rebuild should be entering the final stages, or at least the drywall phase. The proof is in the investment. Since 2013, the Steelers have used seven of their eight picks in the top two rounds on defensive players, and 10 of 17 picks in the top four rounds.
That's four good years of heavy defensive drafting. Most of the starters from the 2012-13 teams are no longer in those roles. In fact, Lawrence Timmons is the only steady defensive contributor who's started each of the last five years in Pittsburgh.
The offense can’t bend much more without replenishment. This defensive plan has to work.
But now the Steelers’ defense under second-year coordinator Keith Butler has a clear-cut identity -- young, fast and big.
Young, because the roster could have at least six starters at age 23 or younger.
Fast, because the past three first-round picks -- linebacker Ryan Shazier, outside linebacker Bud Dupree and cornerback Artie Burns -- are considered speedy for their positions, all classified as the proverbial combine freak.
Big, because last week’s top two picks, Burns and Maryland safety Sean Davis, are sizable cover men, Burns at 6-foot and Davis at 6-1.
The Steelers needed this injection of youth and athleticism after the turnover from accomplished, Super Bowl-winning veterans, some of whom were getting too old (except James Harrison, apparently). Incrementally, they are improving. Last year’s Steelers were among the league’s best in sacks (48) and rushing defense (3.8 yards per carry).
But Burns, Davis and 2015 pick Senquez Golson panning out would tie everything together.
Here are a few ways that might happen if the players fulfill their promise.
LET ARTIE BE ARTIE
There’s no guarantee Burns will be ready to start Week 1, but watching Burns conjures memories of Ike Taylor manning one side of the field as a cover corner.
That’s defensive backs coach Carnell Lake’s comparison, not mine. And it makes sense. Burns, the 25th overall pick out of Miami, is a pure bump-and-run corner, just like Taylor, who could match up against the defense’s best receiver each week.
The Steelers simply haven’t had that in a while, forced to run zone coverages with corners playing "off" coverage, or a good 8 to 10 yards in front of the receiver.
“If need be, we’ll play him like that,” Lake said. “Hopefully we can develop Artie’s tools in other areas, as well.”
Burns can learn the nuances of Pittsburgh’s zone, but Burns’ defensive coordinator at Miami, Mark D’Onofrio, knows where Burns best fits in a defense.
In press coverage.
“Even if we were playing zone, three deep, we usually pressed [Burns] into the boundary,” D’Onofrio said. “He was always our boundary corner. We wanted to take care of that with him.”
The theme of the weekend was "versatility." That was the buzzword from both Lake and head coach Mike Tomlin.
They seem to love the versatility of Davis, who has corner and safety experience despite his 6-1, 201-pound build (and believe me, he’s every bit of 201 -- he looks bigger than that in person). He should provide much-needed help against bigger receivers and tight ends as a strong safety partner with free safety Mike Mitchell. "When the ball broke loose, he made a lot of tackles [in college]," Lake said of Davis.
Tomlin promises the Steelers must have variety as a defense to thrive in 2016. And you get versatility with speed and smarts, something the Steelers believe they have with both players. Burns, in particular, is a “football kid” who asks a ton of questions after every meeting, D’Onofrio said.
At the least, the Steelers should have more personnel with which to experiment. The secondary often looked worse than it actually was because opposing offenses were playing from behind. But the depth is such that young players have to see the field early and often.
“We play some half field, some single high safety, some man to man,” Tomlin said. “All of those things will be required to have a balanced attack. We’ve got to have versatility.”
PICK SIX (OR MORE)
Tomlin cited "tangible evidence" when addressing the 2015 draft and the selection of three defensive backs with a combined 29 interceptions in college the previous year. Those three players haven’t done much of anything in Pittsburgh. Seventh-round safety Gerod Holliman was cut in camp, fourth-round corer Doran Grant returned for a limited role after being cut and Golson missed the entire season with a torn labrum.
The 2015 Steelers didn’t need those players to rank in the NFL’s top 10 with 17 interceptions, up significantly from the previous year. This was an opportunistic group.
But since this is the second straight year the team’s top drafted corner led his conference in interceptions -- Burns had an ACC-high six picks last year -- perhaps the Steelers can strengthen that team total even more.
The Steelers, in most cases, want proven commodities over projections. That must pay off with winning plays from young defensive backs.
A good sign: Davis wants to cover tight ends, a problem area for Pittsburgh a year ago. The Steelers could use a linebacker to disrupt the rhythm of the big receiver, then have Davis waiting in coverage.
“That’s where I feel my skill set comes in handy,” Davis said. “I’m big as a safety, strong as a linebacker but as fast as a corner.”