Submitted by Jim Hurley on Monday, July 11, 2016 at 8:46 AM
There's a lot of optimism surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers as the 2016 NFL season approaches. After making the playoffs each of the past two years, there are expectations that the Steelers can make a run at their first AFC championship since 2010 and their first Super Bowl title since 2008 - both "droughts" an eternity for this proud franchise.
Las Vegas shares the expectations. The Steelers are a 12-1 shot to win the Lombardi Trophy, fifth-best in the league. If we peer ahead to their Week 1 opener, Pittsburgh is a three-point road favorite against a playoff team, in the Washington Redskins. It's another betting number in that same game though that illustrates a deeper concern. The number is 50.5 - it's the Over/Under and tied for the highest on the board in Week 1. The deeper concern is the Pittsburgh defense.
On the surface, the concern may seem overblown. After all, Pittsburgh finished a respectable 11th in the league last year in points allowed. That was a nice seven-spot jump from a mediocre performance in 2014. The improvement came under first-year coordinator Keith Butler and if you wanted to surmise that Butler having a full year of experience running the defense will translate into a more improvement and a Top 10 ranking, we couldn't dismiss the idea.
The problem is simple - the Steelers don't have outstanding individual defensive players. There's no lockdown corner in the secondary. There's no exceptional pass rusher to put fear into a quarterback. In fact, there was a not a single Pro Bowl player on the Pittsburgh defense in 2015.
Pittsburgh overcame that by playing cohesive team football that translated into the sixth-best rush defense in the league. That's a tribute to Butler and the work ethic of the players. But in the NFL there comes a point where you need great individual talent to make plays and it's in pass defense that the Steelers' lack of that became exposed.
The Steelers only ranked 18th in the league in yards-per-pass allowed. A weakness like that finds you eventually and it found Pittsburgh at the end of their divisional playoff game in Denver when Peyton Manning was able to lead a late rally that ended the Steelers' season.
If Pittsburgh is going to be considered a serious threat to win a Super Bowl again, they need to be better against the pass and that means finding someone to step up as either a pass-rusher or in coverage. This organization, one of the best in the game, was under no illusions about themselves and they sought to fix the problem in the draft.
The Steelers used their first two picks on defensive backs, corner Artie Burns from Miami and Maryland safety Sean Davis. The coaching staff hopes that Davis can handle tight ends and bigger receivers that run underneath the coverage. For immediate return on investment though, Burns' ability to play bump-and-run coverage could give this defense something it's been missing.
One of the more intriguing picks for handicappers to watch carefully in the preseason is sixth-round pick Travis Feeney at outside linebacker. Feeney, who played at Washington, was a playmaker in the pass rush and in tackles for loss. He transitioned from the secondary to linebacker, a reason he slipped to this point in the draft. Feeney is stepping into a role the Steelers can really use help with and could be a surprise contributor.
We're just a month away from seeing these players step onto the field in preseason action. If you like Pittsburgh, either on the futures market or in individual games, you're going to pay a price for it. Watching the development of these rookie defenders will give a good early clue if it will be worth the price.