Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Fixing the Steelers Starts with Drafting for Defense

Al Davis once said, as was regularly imitated years ago on SportsCenter by Keith Olbermann, "The (other team's) quarterback must go down and he must go down hard." The late Oakland Raiders coach-then-owner also famously said, "Don’t adjust. Just Dominate."

Despite being the NFL's No. 1 defense once again, tops in total defense in yards per game and in passing yards and the No. 2 rushing defense, the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers defense neither 'dominated,' nor did it get to the quarterback enough. And make no mistake, despite whatever issues were had on offense, fixing the Steelers starts with the defense.

For the second straight year, the Steelers defense hobbled their way to the quarterback, taking down the opposing passer only 37 times. With little pressure being brought, they paralleled that by only forcing 20 turnovers...and that just does not cut it.

We'll delve more into this in part two of "All The King's Horses" where we will address the defense looking back at the season. Here, though, we're looking forward at the three defensive positions that are of greatest need and that the Steelers will most likely address in the early rounds of the April 25-27 NFL Draft. First off within that, the Salary Cap issues.

Per Steve Wyche of NFL.com in June of 2012: "The salary cap slightly increased to $120.6 million from $120.37 last season. Several team management officials said it's not projected to jump much in 2013, prompting one general manager to say there could be "carnage" for some big-contract players...after next season."

So, we'll go with the assumption of a rounded up salary cap of $121 million. The Steelers are roughly $12 million, when you include the exclusive rights free agents, over that number and will need to restructure, reduce and cut to have room to sign there own free agents and to possibly do a little shopping. - http://tinyurl.com/akaloo6

The Steelers are getting older at key positions also, and three players, James Harrison, Troy Polamalu and Larry Foote, play prominently in what Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan will be able to do. Like the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review made painfully clear, the Steelers' dollars go to the defense. - http://t.co/BFQMIKZ6

These three gentlemen present daunting age and salary cap situations. Harrison, for starters, is due $6.57 million next season and would count just over $10 million against the Cap. It has been well publicized by now that Deebo will be willing to restructure. Good, but the problem is that there isn't much room to restructure. He would more accurately have to take an actual pay cut to stay with the team.

Whether he does or not, the Steelers have need right now at his position. Even if he comes back and plays at a Silverback-ish level, the depth behind him is either woefully suspect, woefully untested or they've woefully underperformed.

So, another vicious pass rusher who is also athletic enough to cover is needed to replace Harrison. We think the two who stand out as possibles in the first round for the Steelers are Brigham Young's Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah and Oregon's Dion Jordan.

Ziggy Ansah is a 6'6" 270-pound outside linebacker/defensive end with speed whom his position coach, Kelly Poppinga, called "remarkable" and said that "he has all the numbers they want to see at the combine. He'll blow that part away."

If chosen, what else will Keith Butler and Dick LeBeau love about him? Poppinga said that he could play all three of the down lineman positions, as well as both linebacker spots, and that "he picks up things super fast and doesn't forget them." - http://tinyurl.com/b75kwqe

Don't take our word for it, though, take the word of someone with intimate knowledge of both the Steelers and the Cougars, Chris Hoke.

The former Steelers nose tackle/defensive end had this to say on his personal Twitter (@hokiebro76) account: "Ziggy Ansah? Raw... Unbelievable kid! So much talent it spews out of him." Sounds good to us.

Dion Jordan is another OLB/DE who has size (6'7" 243 lbs) speed (4.68/40) and can defend in space. A former tight end, Jordan has the athletic ability to drop into coverage as well as to rush the edge. The type of versatility the Steelers like. - http://tinyurl.com/85el334

(UPDATE: As this was being edited and about to be posted, it was reported that it has been confirmed that Jordan will have surgery to repair a torn labrum. Since that alters his draft stock, here are alternate possibilities: the 6'5" 240-pound OLB/DE Barkevious Mingo out of LSU, who had 15 QB hurries and five QB sacks on the season; the 6'5" 265-pound raw, but mean DE out of Texas, Alex Okafor, may drop enough to be found in the second round; and Gerald Hodges, a 6'2" 235-pound OLB who could be taken in the second round.)

As the Steelers defense started to gel, they began keeping nearly every quarterback they faced from doing what they wanted. They even went eight straight games without allowing more than 200 yards passing. Most of that, though, was due to the coverage of the secondary.

The cornerbacks are a young unit, outside of Ike Taylor, who came into their own this season. Assuming Keenan Lewis can be signed, another UFA Salary Cap situation, he'd be one third of the holy trinity of the Steelers future in the secondary, along with Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown.

The issues are at safety. Both former Pro Bowl safeties, Polamalu and Ryan Clark, are getting up in age and are near the end of contracts. Polamalu specifically is due approximately $9 million from a contract due to expire after next season. Could this affect what the Steelers do with Troy and in the draft?

If the Steelers feel the "best available" need is at safety in the first round, there are two who should be available at the 17th pick: Florida's strong safety Matt Elam and LSU's free safety underclassman Eric Reid.

Matt Elam, at 5'10 and 202 lbs is nearly the epitome of strong safety. He's a strong, bruising hitter who isn't afraid to throw his body around the field and into opposing wide receivers. Per Dane Brugler, he also has the "read/react skills to be effective against both the run and the pass." - http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/draft/players/1737092

Eric Reid is a 6'2" 210-pound "centerfielder" with the requisite build and athleticism, and the instinct and tenacity to deliver the big hit. Hm...sounds like another LSU safety on the team.

If the Steelers go pass rusher in the first round, then there are two safeties who just might be available in the second.

The first and potentially better choice is Texas FS Kenny Vaccaro. He is 6'1" 218 lbs with good instincts. He can pass rush as well as tackle the catch, and is starting to rise up mock draft boards. In fact, according to Todd Swoopes of National Football Direct, he is actually first-round worthy. - http://nationalfootballdirect.com/2013-nfl-mock-draft/todd-swoopes-mock-draft-1-0/

The other whom we think would be a second-round consideration is the son of former San Francisco 49ers Pro Bowl safety, USC FS T.J. McDonald. He's 6'2" and 205 lbs, runs a 4.52 40-yard dash and was a consistent defender for the Trojans, recording 67 tackles and three interceptions.

Jim Wexell of Steelers Digest and SteelCityInsider.net added his two cents on the subject, not to mention a couple of more names to consider: "So far, I like 3 safeties (I'm letting E.Reid go to the Ravens): {Kenny} Vaccaro, {Matt} Elam, {FS D.J.} Swearinger. Fallback {SS Phillip} Thomas a small ballhawk." Brackets ours.

Using Wexell as a reference again, let him now springboard us into the last position being covered in this piece. That of inside linebacker.

Wexell points out that the Steelers haven't forgotten about last season's third-round draft pick is still a a possibility. From his personal Twitter (@jimwexell) account, in part, he tweeted: "#Steelers believe Sean Spence will recover fully..." But if we're going to speculate about the future, take a brief look back at the past: http://tinyurl.com/bdm5h4b

The Steelers are facing a situation they aren't used to, in that they have to draft for right now at certain positions. With Spence an unknown commodity, Stevenson Sylvester an uncertain one and Foote an old one (though he did play very well this season the UFA has openly said he'd take less to come back), the Steelers may still look to inside linebacker if a particular one is still on the board.

Manti Te'o had a dream season: 113 tackles, seven interceptions, an undefeated regular season and more trophies than an Iranian prince has "trophies."

However, someone stole his dream catcher, causing him to have a rude awakening as his Notre Dame Fighting Irish ran out of luck and lost to the Alabama Crimson Tide, 42-14. A game where he finished with 10 total tackles, but missed almost as many.

Now, one game doesn't discount an entire season, but people have a tendency to form opinions on what they saw lastly. So, could knee jerk reactions cause Te'o to slide somewhat and be ripe for the plucking at the 17th pick? Yes, they could. They shouldn't, but they could.

The Steelers conceivably could feel they still need a coverage ILB that could roam the middle of the field in Nickel and Dime packages, but also in man coverages against tight ends and running backs alike. If so, Manti fits that to a tee('o).

If not, and they want to wait on scratching that itch, Nico Johnson, who was on the same field Monday night, could be found as late as the third round. He's 6'2" and 245 lbs with a 4.63/40 time. A solid selection, he was third on his team in tackles (54), had two tackles for losses, two forces fumbles, a QB pressure and a pass defense in just five starts.

Those are the three positions that are most important on the defensive side of the ball and possibilities for players who may wear Black and Gold next season. Will we see one of them? Two of them? None of them? Time will tell.

Regardless of whether, though, any of those names will be heard being called on that Thursday or on the subsequent days, those positions absolutely will called. Maybe even in each of the first three rounds. Because that's where they begin to dominate again.