Monday, September 7, 2009

Pittsburgh Steelers Season Preview: Defense

Today is Part 2 of our three-part Steelers season preview to get you ready for the season. Today, the focus is on the best Defense in the National Football League. A scary thought is that even though last year's defense was one of the best in NFL history, this year's version might be better.

Defensive Line

Aaron Smith
Defensive End

Aaron Smith is poised to have a big season. Last year, with all the off-field distractions that came with his son's diagnosis, it was amazing he was even able to get on the field. This year, his son is healthy, and he has been sharp in camp. We're not saying that Smith had a bad season last year. He was, as always, unblockable with just one guy. He was 3rd on the team with 5.5 sacks This season? We think he's capable of breaking his career high of 8 sacks in a season. Smith is a monster in run defense, and even though he doesn't get credit for it, makes plays (such as getting penetration) that enables our run defense to be so good.

Casey Hampton
Nose Tackle

When you talk about the best nose tackles in the league, Casey Hampton is one of the top names in the conversation. Hampton is the reason teams can't run up the middle against us. "Big Snack" occupies at least two blockers and just dominates centers across the league. He had some weight issues at the beginning of last season, but he is healthy and in great shape this year. Whenever he gets it in his head he's not going to be blocked; he won't be.

Brett Keisel
Defensive End

The Diesel just signed a 5-year contract that ensures he will finish his career with the Steelers. He has been a solid contributor on the D-line, and has a great sack celebration ("Row the Boat"). Keisel had 2 sacks last year - both against San Diego. For some reason, he just dominates them. Lucky for us, the Chargers come to town again this year and the Deisel will get to smash up Phillip Rivers.

Travis Kirschke
Defensive End

Kirschke has been a mainstay in the D-line rotation for years. He filled in for Keisel last year when Brett was injured, and actually accumulated more tackles than Keisel over the course of the season. Kirschke and Keisel are basically interchangable parts at DE, and we don't lose much, if anything, when Travis comes in. Kirschke is 35, one of the oldest members of the defense, yet hasn't lost any production over the years. The age of the defensive line (all 6 were over 30) likely prompted the drafting of Ziggy Hood.

Nick Eason
Defensive End

Eason has been a great fill-in on the D-line since he came over from Cleveland in free agency. Eason has a penchant for getting in the backfiled and disrupting plays when he gets in the game. He usually sees the field on passing downs and special teams, and has been a good contributor to the rotation.

Chris Hoke
Nose Tackle

Hoke is a change-of-pace nose tackle to Hampton. While Big Snack is huge and immovable, Hoke is smaller, faster, and more agile. He gets upfield in a hurry and disrupts things in the backfield. Hoke usually sees time in the nickel package as one of the two down-lineman, and provides a great compliament to Hampton.

Ziggy Hood
Defensive End

The Steelers invested their first round pick on Evander "Ziggy" Hood out of Missouri. Hood has a great motor and picked up 3 sacks in the preseason (good for 2nd best in the league). He will be filled into the D-line rotation and will see time, probably on passing downs, where he can use his ability to get upfield and disrupt the pocket. Drafting Hood was the first step in addressing the aging of the Defensive line. With the signing of Keisel, Hood will have a few years to learn the defense before he needs to step in as a starter.


James Harrison

What can we say about the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year? Yeah, he's just that good. And he might be even better this season. Don't think that 20 sacks is out of the question, he played against some very good O-lines last year and still got pressure (see: Tennessee and New York).

James Farrior

Farrior has been a beast in the middle since he came over from the Jets in free agency. He is the epitome of a 3-4 inside linebacker, and his Pro Bowl selection last year proved it. He racked up over 100 tackles, including 3.5 sacks. Farrior is all over the field, and is always around the ball in run defense. The Steelers signed him to a contract that will ensure he retires in black and gold, and at 34, you have to believe he has at least 2 or 3 more good years in him.

Lawrence Timmons

Timmons was the first draft pick that Mike Tomlin ever made as a head coach. Originally drafted as an outside linebacker, Timmons moved to the inside and has excelled. He was a staple of the nickel package last year. With Larry Foote's move to Detroit, Timmons now becomes an every down player. He is one of the fastest to-the-ball tacklers we have seen in a long time. Some have even questioned if he gets to the ball faster in the open field than Troy Polamalu. Timmons had 5 sacks last year, and moving into the starting role, it's likely he'll have more.

LaMarr Woodley

Woodley, entering his 3rd season in black and gold, will build on his 11.5 sack season from last year. He sat out a few games with injuries last year, and it's scary to think about just how good he might be. Woodley is the reason you can't double-team Harrison. If you do, LaMarr is going to crush you. He has all the moves an OLB needs. He can bull-rush tackles out of their shoes. He has the speed to get around the edge. He has the footwork and hands to get off of blocks and make plays. We won't be surprised if Woodley racks up more sacks than Harrison this year.

Keyaron Fox

The Steelers added Keyaron Fox as a free agent last year, and he finished 2nd on the team in Special Teams tackles. Fox has grown into a great inside linebacker and has made some bone-crushing hits in the preseason. With Timmons dinged up, Fox Trot may get a chance to start against Tennessee. He is a play-maker and a big hitter. He is great in run defense and isn't afraid to stick his nose in there and wallop someone.

Andre Frazier

To let you know how old Dick Lebeau is, he coached Andre Frazier's dad. Frazier had a scary moment last year when he was carted off the field in the first game against the Ravens. Frazier was able to come back and play. He is a beast on special teams, and accounted for the Steelers first blocked punt in 2 years last season.

Arnold Harrison

Arnold Harrison is an outside linebacker who has earned his stripes on Special Teams. He has been a solid contributor that is coming back from a season-ending knee injury last year. In the preseason, he looked like someone who never had a knee injury, and did a great job pressuring the quarterback off the edge. He is a capable backup at outside linebacker who has started a few games in his career for the Steelers when he was needed.

Patrick Bailey

Patrick Bailey joined the team as an undrafted free agent out of Duke before last season. He caught the eye of the coaches when he had 4 Special Teams tackles in one game. Bailey is a hard hitter that always finds the ball on Special Teams. In the preseason, teams had a very effective strategy of taking him out of the play: block him in the back. While Bailey is almost purely a special teams ace now, don't think that's all he'll ever be. This one dude named James Harrison once made the team as a Special Teamer, and look where he is now.


Ike Taylor

Ike Taylor is the reason Chad Ochostinko is irrelevant right now. Ocho made a big deal a few years ago with his "list" of D-backs that he was going to dominate. Until Ike dominated him. Twice. Taylor gets some flak for having bad hands, but he does a great job of breaking up passes and is like a blanket against #1 receivers. Ike played safety in college and he has made a great transition to corner and is coming into his own as one of the best shut-down corners in the league.

William Gay

When Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden went down with injuries last season, Willie Gay stepped into the starting lineup. He played so well, that even when McFadden came back, he was run in a 2-series rotation with B-Mac. Gay now steps into the starting corner job, and he has looked great thus far in the preseason. He doesn't have the size of Ike Taylor, but he packs a punch and has a great jump on the ball, which has prompted the nickname "Big Play Willie Gay." We're looking for big things from Gay this year, and we have no doubt he can deliver.

Deshea Townsend

Deshea and Hines Ward are the longest tenured Steelers this season. Deshea will be relegated to the nickle back role, but is good enough to step in and start if the need arises. Deshea also has some of the best hands in the secondary, and was 3rd on the team with two picks last year, none bigger than the one he took to the house for the game winner against Dallas. He is a playmaker, and has a knack for making big plays at key moments in big games. He is strong in coverage and a great tackler in the run game.

Keiwan Ratliff

Ratliff was one of the few free agent acquisitions the Steelers made in the offseason, and he showed enough in the preseason to make the team. Ratliff will likely be the dime back and see time on Special Teams, replacing Anthony Madison as a gunner on punt coverage. Ratliff has spent time with the Bengals and Colts and provides a good veteran presence in the secondary.

Keenan Lewis

Lewis was one of 3 picks the Steelers made in the 3rd round of the draft. Lewis is a taller defensive back who blew some coverage in the preseason but makes some great form-tackles. He looked very strong in run defense, and made some good tackles on Special Teams. It's unlikely Lewis will see a lot of time on the field this year except on Special Teams (barring an injury), but he has a great upside and we're looking for big things out of him in the future.

Joe Burnett

The Steelers were enamoured with Burnett's ability in the offseason, and they spent a 5th round pick on the corner. Burnett had some punt return ability, but struggled to hang on to the ball and lost the job to Stefan Logan. Burnett made his splash on defense, with his quick jump on the ball, taking an interception back to the goal line against Arizona to set up the first score. He also flew in off the corner and blocked a field goal against Buffalo to preserve the shutout. Burnett is likely another Special Teamer this year, but he has a solid upside and can be a good contributor in years to come.


Troy Polamalu

Troy is the best safety in the league. He returned to his Pro Bowl numbers last season, and led the team with 7 interceptions. Rather than running himself out of the play, as he had done in previous years, he played much more within himself and showed why he is one of the best in the game. He is always around the ball and makes plays in the run game, blitzing, and in coverage. His athleticism is unrivaled and we would challenge you to find another player in the league that is faster to the ball in the open field.

Ryan Clark

Clark has been a staple of the defense the last few years at free safety. He has only been injured twice in his tenure with the Steelers, and both injuries occurred in Denver. Sadly, the Steelers do travel to the Mile High City again this year. That being said, Clark has been a standout in the preseason. He has been all over the field in practice, and is quickly gaining a reputation for being a big hitter who just lights people up. Two of the biggest hits of last season (on Wes Welker and Willis MaGahee) were both curtesy of Clark. Anyone coming across the middle be forewarned: Ryan is lurking.

Tyrone Carter

Curtesy of his two interceptions in the finale against Cleveland, Carter finished second on the team with 3 interceptions. He is a solid backup at both strong and free safety, and is particularly strong in run defense. He is a good tackler, and his coverage skills have grown over the last few years to where he doesn't get torched anymore. Carter is entering his 9th year in the league, his 6th as a Steeler, and is a good veteran presence in the secondary, should one of the top safeties get hurt. He has started at least 2 games for 3 consecutive seasons, and he sees the field occasionally in passing situations.

Ryan Mundy

Mundy is a great hometown story. Out of Woodland Hills High School and West Virginia University, Ryan suffered an injury last year in the preseason that led to him not making the team. This year, he had a great preseason, flying around the field making plays, capping it off with a pick-6 to seal the game against Carolina. In his first real year in the league, Mundy will continue to grow as a player, and has the ability to step in if needed. He has great potential to grow into a starting safety, and the Steelers saw enough in preseason make the investment of a roster spot in him.


Daniel Sepulveda

Fresh off of the kryptonite-induced knee injury, Daniel "Superman" Sepulveda is back. No longer will we have to put up with Mitch "Lob Wedge" Berger's 27-yard punts. Sepulveda has been absolutely kicking the snot out of the ball in the preseason, and he looks even better now than he did in his rookie year with the team. We're very excited to have an NFL-caliber punter on the team once again, particularly one with the ability to flip the field on teams. Sepulveda has a variety of kicks in his aresenal, and has an "Aussie Boot" that he uses on shorter kicks where he points the nose down to get it to bounce sideways in the coffin corners.

Greg Warren
Long Snapper

Don't think a long snapper is important? Remember what happened last year in the Giants game after Warren was injured? In addition to having perfected the art of snapping the ball with speed and accuracy, Warren also makes plays downfield on Special Teams. Don't be surprised when he's in the mix making a tackle or downing a punt. He has great downfield speed and is a good blocker on kicks and punts. Special Teams will be better this year with his return.

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