Sunday, March 30, 2014

Secondary May Be Key, But Steelers Cannot Neglect Defensive Line

After the end of the annual Beefcake Bonanza, aka the NFL Scouting Combine, If It Ain't Steel started to write several articles covering the Pittsburgh Steelers' positions of need in May's NFL Draft.

We wrote about the Steelers' needs at both linebacker spots. Needs that were quelled somewhat by the signing of Arthur Moats whose proclivity is particularly on the outside, though he is versatile enough to play inside as well. -

Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, exit stage left. Enter understudy sophomore wideout Markus Wheaton and veteran Lance Moore. They can also further deepen the position in a big way with possible draft selections like Mike Evans, Martavis Bryant, Jordan Matthews or maybe even an Eric Ebron. -

We also covered the possibility of drafting a safety, though that is now unlikely, at least in the first several rounds, with the Steelers grabbing former Carolina Panthers safety Mike Mitchell in free agency. -

That, along with the re-signing of free safety Will Allen, the restructuring of strong safety Troy Polamalu, and Polamalu's heir apparent in Shamarko Thomas, allows the Steelers to focus elsewhere in the draft.

Mitchell's signing and then also that of defensive tackle Cam Thomas effectively takes players like Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix and Louis Nix III off the board for the Steelers at the 15th pick. That leaves said focus to be on the position of cornerback. -

The need to get better in the secondary can't be overstated, as the Steelers were tied for 5th in the NFL for the fewest takeaways in 2013 with 20 and even worse in interceptions with 10 only. So, for now, the piece we wrote on whom we believe best fits the Steelers' scheme at cornerback seems now to be even more relevant. 

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin certainly believes that the secondary is a key area of need, though he isn't neglecting the rest of the defense. He understands the need to be flexible in the way they attack. 

“We have to be multiple,” Tomlin said at the owners meetings this past week. “We have to be capable of providing pressure, but more importantly than that, [we] have to be able to provide pressure with four [players] or less. I think that’s what gives you the flexibility to be something to deal with.” (brackets ours)

The reason he says they have to be able to pressure with four or fewer players is because of the increase in sub packages because of pass-happy offenses. 

“I think in today’s NFL it’s about situational football and what offenses do, and how many receivers they have on the field,” Tomlin also said. “Often times, we spend a lot of time in sub-package football, whether you are a 3-4 or a 4-3. In today’s NFL, most times you have five or six defensive backs on the field.”

Whether in the Nickel, Dime or Quarters packages, the Steelers did have as many as six defensive backs on the field between 60%-65% of the time in 2013. A definite increase over previous years and one that causes defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to construct a speed bump to slow these high-powered offenses. 

"You're going to see these up-tempo offenses more and more across the league," said LeBeau in an offseason interview. "So very early during our practice sessions, the offense will go a lot of no-huddle attack so our guys get comfortable with not only their up-tempo conditioning, but they get comfortable with the mechanics of getting the call relayed when you can't get huddled up. You need to practice that because the up-tempo is another tool offenses have now to pressure defenses."

This means that holding the point of attack becomes even more paramount. So does, as Tomlin alluded to, doing the same or more with less. The core of any and all teams lie in the offensive and defensive lines. The defensive line, therefore, definitely needs to be addressed. -

As was said before, such a pick won't happen very early in the draft. There is, however, value to be found as early as the third and as late as the sixth round. Look, in that case, for names such as:

Daniel McCullers, DT/DE, Tennessee: 6'7", 352 LBs, 225-LB Bench Press 27 reps (3th-4th Round) - McCullers is big for even NFL standards. He isn't overly quick or explosive, and is about four or five inches too tall for a nose tackle in the Steelers scheme. However, he is a very good athlete for his size, moves his feet well in space and plugs holes well. With nine picks in May's draft, it could be worth taking a trip to Mount McCullers. -

JUSTIN ELLIS, (pictured) DT/NT, Louisiana Tech: 6'2", 334 LBs, Bench 25 reps (3rd-4th Round) - "I love playing nose tackle," says Ellis. The true NT has quick and active hands to ward off blockers, and a thick-but-agile lower body that makes it tough for blockers to keep hold of him, per Dane Brugler of Think Joel Steed or Casey Hampton. -

Ryan Carrethers, DT, Arkansas State: 6'1", 337 LBs, Bench 32 reps (5th-6th Round) - 2013 All-Sun Belt 1st Team and a real value pick for the Steelers if he falls to one of their four selections 5th and 6th rounds. -

Deandre Coleman, DE, California: 6'5", 314 LBs, Bench 24 reps (5th-6th Round) - A DE in an NFL 3-4 defense, Coleman has the power and athleticism that Steelers D-Line coach John Mitchell can definitely use to mold. And as states, "Coleman's value in the NFL will come as a run-stuffing presence." -

Holding the point of attack, rushing the quarterback and creating turnovers is what is basically being said and what was once the core of the Steelers defense. 

These free agent moves juxtaposed by a mirror-like draft can be the petard which hoists them back there - with the fuse being lit by the defensive line.