There wasn't much mystery about what the Steelers were going to do in the 2017 NFL Draft. Unlike, say, 2008, when the team desperately needed to fix its offensive line and ended up taking running back Rashard Mendenhall 23rd overall because seven offensive linemen were already off the board, there was no such drama during Thursday's first round.
Instead, the Steelers addressed needs at edge rusher and in the secondary, and, as expected, added depth at quarterback, wide receiver and running back. All told, Pittsburgh let four players walk in free agency: linebackers Jarvis Jones and Lawrence Timmons, wideout Markus Wheaton and running back DeAngelo Williams. Weighing those losses against the free agents they signed, and the college players they drafted last weekend, it's not much of a leap to say this team as currently constituted is better than the one that lost to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game in January.
James Harrison ain't playing forever (we think)
This marks the fifth consecutive draft that the Steelers have used its first-round pick on a defender. It started with Jarvis Jones in 2013, then inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, outside linebacker Bud Dupree and cornerback Artie Burns last year. Jones never came close to the form that made him so dangerous in college, the Steelers chose not to exercise his fifth-year option last year at this time, and in March he signed a one-year free-agent deal with the Cardinals.
T.J. Watt -- yep, he's J.J.'s younger brother -- is next in line to solve the Steelers' pass-rushing woes. He was drafted 30th overall, and while he's only played outside linebacker for a few years, it's his potential for growth -- both physically and as a football player -- that have the Steelers excited. He's drawn comparisons to Dupree in that they are insanely athletic and raw (both are 6-foot-4, both ran sub-4.0 40 at the combine), and there will be no urgency to get him on the field in 2017.
Watt will play behind 39-year-old James Harrison, who continues to defy age and physics. We can't imagine a better learning environment for Watt than on-the-job training from Harrison, whom Watt will spell occasionally in 2017. Meanwhile, Dupree was slowed early last season by a groin injury, but when he finally got on the field for the final two months of the season, he showed glimpses of his game-changing abilities, logging 4.5 sacks and a forced fumble. And in the wild-card round of the playoffs, he perpetrated this against Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore:
The takeaway: If the Steelers are right about Watt, and Dupree continues to elevate his game, this could be thee team's best pass-rushing duo since Harrison and LaMarr Woodley terrorized quarterbacks from 2008-2011. We're probably a year away from that reality but the Steelers' biggest offseason need was pass rusher and Watt made too much sense to pass up at the bottom of Round 1.
Playing more man-to-man is a priority
There are 16 teams in the AFC and almost every year the Bengals and Ravens battle the Steelers for supremecy in the division. But Pittsburgh knows how to win in Cincinnati and Baltimore; the biggest obstacle to getting back to the Super Bowl remains the New England Patriots. We were all reminded of this in late January, 36-15, in the AFC title game.
In the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era, the Pats are 8-2, with one of the losses coming with Matt Cassel under center. The two teams will meet in Heinz Field next season on Dec. 17, perhaps offering a glimpse at not only the playoffs, but the Steelers' latest plan to slow Brady.
The Steelers faced the Patriots in Heinz Field in October, but that was without Roethlisberger. Backup Landry Jones was serviceable but the Pats prevailed 27-16. The last time the Patriots came to Pittsburgh with Big Ben under center -- October 2011 -- was also the last time the Steelers beat them. In that game, one that has been referenced countless times in the wake of January's disaster, the Steelers, abandoned the zone defense they are known for and relied heavily on a man-to-man scheme that disrupted Brady's ability to get the ball out quickly. That along with getting after Brady -- he was pressured for much of the game and was sacked three times -- was critical to Pittsburgh's success.
It was something of a surprise when the Steelers played mostly zone, which afforded them a front-row seat to a Brady-led whupping but not much else. Then again, apparently it didn't matter what the scheme was.
Steelers D went to man coverage 3 times and got burned each time by Brady. Stopped doing it after that. Per team source.— Gerry Dulac (@gerrydulac) January 24, 2017
Biggest culprit in man coverage was nickel back William Gay, who struggled w Edelman.— Gerry Dulac (@gerrydulac) January 24, 2017
William Gay is 32 and is entering his 11th NFL season. He's been a solid slot corner for the Steelers, but they looked to the draft to add youth and physicality. In a draft deep with defensive backs, Pittsburgh waited until the third round to add University of Tennessee's Cameron Sutton, a four-year starter who can play outside or in the slot. He also excels at in man-to-man coverage.
"Cameron is a press corner and plays close to the line of scrimmage but can also play off," defensive backs coach Carnell Lake said shortly after Sutton was drafted. "He does a good job of mirroring the receiver. He stays close, and that shows in his productivity as a corner for Tennessee over the years in his career. He has led his team and is the all-time leader in passed defensed for Tennessee. He knows how to cover, he stays close, and that is something that we've been looking for in the draft. In the third round, he was available and that's why we took him."
Now let's rewind to five weeks ago, when Tomlin met with reporters at the owners meetings.
"Our inability to play man-to-man effectively and our inability to apply pressure on the quarterback without blitzing were issues in that game," Tomlin said of the Patriots playoff loss."
So what was Tomlin looking for in a defensive back who is successful playing man to man?
"Staying close to people, it's that simple," he said.
The Steelers also took a fifth-round flier on Utah's Brian Allen, a 6-3 cornerback who previously played wide receiver in college. He's considered a project, and might spend need to spend the 2017 season on the practice squad.
When in doubt, score more points than the opponent
Antonio Brown is the most dangerous wide receiver in football. And Martavis Bryant, who was reinstated last week after missing the 2016 season because of violating the league's substance abuse policy, may not be far behind. The problem, however, is that the Steelers can't trust Bryant to stay out of trouble; in addition to the suspension in '16, he was suspended for four games in 2015. But when he's on the field and focused ... my word. It makes Ben Roethlisberger's life immeasurably easier, and the hope is that Bryant can straddle the straight and narrow and remain on the field for the duration of the 2017 season.
Behold the possibilities:
Then there's Sammie Coates, the Steelers' third-round pick in 2015, who was drafted because the team knew Bryant would be suspended. Coates, like Bryant, is a burner, but after a blazing start last season, he was hampered by injuries over the final three months. There's also tight end Ladarius Green, a middle-of-the-field matchup nightmare who battled ankle injuries and concussions during his first year in Pittsburgh. If only these three players show up healthy and ready to go for training camp, the Steelers' offense will be damn near unstoppable -- and we haven't even talked about Le'Veon Bell yet.
The Steelers must have some reservations, which explains their draft-day insurance policy in the form of second-round pick, JuJu Smith-Schuster, who will replace Wheaton on the roster but is a completely different type of receiver. Listed at 6-2, 220 pounds, Smith-Schuster ran a 4.54 40 at the combine and he has drawn comparisons to Anquan Boldin. He can also play inside or out, excels at making contested catches, and not only offers a Plan B should one of the wide receivers fall short of expectations, but at tight end, too. The Steelers were apparently enamored with Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram, who is 6-3, 234 pounds and is more receiver than blocker.
"He's not a guy that's afraid to stick his nose in there and block safeties and even some linebackers," Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley said Friday. "He plays with a great passion, which is one of the exciting things about him. He is a really do-it-all guy. He can play inside, outside. If you had to say what he excelled at, I'd say his ability to catch the ball in combative situations, 50/50 balls as we call them, and he usually comes down with them."
Oh, and then there's the offensive line. For years a punchline, this group has quietly become the foundation to Big Ben & Co.'s success. In 2016, the line ranked second in run blocking and fourth in pass protection, according to Football Outsiders, a far cry from the indignities Roethlisberger suffered in 2011, the year before Haley arrived, when he took 40 sacks and the O-line was 20th in pass blocking. Last season, Roethlisberger was sacked 17 times.
The final analysis
The consistency across the Steelers' roster has been a staple of the Ben Roethlisberger era. Since 2004, when Roethlisberger was drafted, the Steelers are 150-78, according to teamrrankings.com, second only to -- you guessed it -- the Patriots, who have gone 181-55 over that same period. Pittsburgh won't catch New England in 2017, but if players like Watt and Sutton help fill the biggest needs on defense, and the offense stays healthy and Bryant stays out of trouble, there's no reason this group can't end up in the Super Bowl.