The 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers pass defense was a far cry away to the days of the Steel Curtain, or even the defenses of the two Super Bowl winning teams in 2005 and 2008. They gave up the 12th most yards at 5809, and the third most passing yards at 4350. Their 121 penalties was good for 4th highest, and the 1199 penalty yards that came with those penalties was second highest in all of football. It was not all bad, however.
The Steelers had the fifth best run defense in the entire league, only giving up 1459 yards on the season, and the second fewest rushing touchdowns with six.
On top of that, free agency saw the Steelers lose some defensive players, the most important being Steve McLendon, to the New York Jets. McLendon was a pure run stopping nose tackle, and the run defense was better off with him, than without him. However, he played less than 50% of the Steelers defensive snaps last season, and he only has five sacks in the last five years. It is clear that the Steelers want more of a pass rushing threat from their defensive lineman. Also, they need someone to take the pressure off of Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, who play an ungodly amount of snaps on the line.
The Steelers also lost Will Allen, Brandon Boykin and Antwon Blake, all of which were important cogs for the secondary (although Blake was pretty bad throughout the year). They also lost depth players in Cam Thomas, Terrence Garvin (who was an important special teams player) and Sean Spence.
They did address some of that depth loss in free agency, signing Ricardo Matthews (who is similar to McLendon, in terms of good run stopping, but poor pass rushing. His scouting report is here), and Steven Johnson, who is a quality depth linebacker who has started games as recently as 2014.
These signings do not address the issues at defensive line, and at secondary. However, the Steelers pre-draft visits show what they are prioritizing.
In their pre-draft visits (at the time of this writing) the Steelers have met with:
- Six safeties: Jeremy Cash (Duke), Deon Bush (Miami), Keanu Reeves (Florida), Darian Thompson (Boise St.), Vonn Bell (Ohio St.) and TJ Green (Clemson)
- Four corner backs: David White (Georgia), Tavon Young (Temple), Jonathan Jones (Auburn) and Ryan Smith (North Carolina Central)
- Two offensive tackles: Jerald Hawkins (LSU) and Caleb Benenoch ( UCLA)
- One defensive tackle: A’Shawn Robinson (Alabama)
- One linebacker: Jatavis Brown (Akron)
The Steelers also show a propensity for drafting the players they officially bring in on visits. According to Mark Kabloy, over the past three seasons the Steelers have drafted fifteen players who have been brought in on visits, four last season alone. On top of that, three who were brought in on pre-draft visits were signed as undrafted free agents.
One name that is not here, but the Steelers have shown a whole lot of interest in, is Andrew Billings, who would be a perfect fit for the Steelers. When Mean Joe Greene scouts your pro day, you know the Steelers are interested.
This tells us two things: one is that it’s important to look at these numbers if you are a Steelers fan; they like to draft players they meet with. Secondly, defense is absolutely paramount in the 2016 draft. The team is a solid secondary (and staying healthy) away from their seventh Super Bowl, and it is obvious that the front office will attempt to address it through the NFL Draft.