Mark Madden: Not too early to be worried about Steelers defense

September 8, 2018

It’s too early to proclaim the Steelers defense will be a disaster.

It’s not too early to be very worried.

Five regulars -- Sean Davis, Joe Haden, Cam Heyward, Mike Hilton and T.J. Watt -- didn’t play in last Thursday’s 51-34 preseason loss at Green Bay. But lots of regulars did play, and problems went well beyond the 37 points conceded by the defense.

The Steelers couldn’t cover and couldn’t tackle. Their pursuit angles were terrible. They flunked Football 101 time and again.

Can it be fixed? That’s far from a certainty.

Coaching can do only so much. Scheme can’t overcome bad talent.

The Steelers have bad talent at inside linebacker. The magnitude of Ryan Shazier’s loss becomes more and more glaring. The field has grown much bigger in the absence of his speed.

Vince Williams was only good playing alongside Shazier. Jon Bostic, L.J. Fort and Tyler Matakevich are ham-and-eggers, if that.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler will try and make up for the lack of ability at inside ’backer by using a plethora of defensive backs.

But the defensive backs lack ability, too. Butler has a lot of excrement to fling at the wall when it comes to DBs, but not a lot seems poised to stick.

There are already whispers free-agent signing Morgan Burnett isn’t what he’s cracked up to be. If Artie Burns and Sean Davis aren’t more than borderline in this, their third season, that’s all they’re going to be. Joe Haden is what he is but not what he was. First-round pick Terrell Edmunds was around the ball quite a bit in Green Bay. But a Packer was too often holding it and occasionally standing in the end zone.

Hilton is an overachiever. That’s the nicest thing that can be said about any of the defensive backs.

It’s easy to hope things get better when all the regulars are on the field, especially when Heyward and Watt up the pressure on the quarterback.

But you need to cover, and you need to tackle. That’s where it starts.

It’s also easy to hope the Steelers’ high-powered offense will post enough points to make up for shortcomings on defense.

But that’s a slippery slope, especially in the playoffs. All the opponents are good, and if the offense has one bad night, your season ends.

That’s if the Steelers make the playoffs.

That defense could be bad enough to keep the Steelers out of the postseason. The Steelers were 13-3 last year but won eight games by six points or fewer and five games by three points or fewer.

The defense is likely to be worse. Le’Veon Bell not only will show up late again, but also have one foot out the door. Not a healthy situation.

The Steelers’ best bet might be their much-talked-about dollar defense: seven defensive backs on the field.

But the Steelers would have to use it more than they’re prepared to.

If the Steelers use the dime and dollar extensively, it could frustrate the other team’s passing game and force it to run. The run is a preferred method of attack for very few teams. That’s not how the NFL is. The dime and dollar would force most teams away from their strength.

But that’s radical. The Steelers don’t do radical. (If it encourages, New England plays its base 4-3 defense 15 percent of the time.)

So the Steelers must hope for improvement from a unit that shows little sign of improving and from individuals on that unit who frustrate in like fashion.

It’s not too early to be worried. If the Steelers are to be a Super Bowl contender like so many expect, they don’t necessarily need a top-10 defense. But it would help, and being among the top half of NFL defenses is a must.

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