The defense has appeared to be almost dominant this pre-season. Even Ben, when asked who is winning said one word, Defense. Obviously, I know from experience that going against your own offense in the pre-season is not the real test. I used to be frustrated that our defense knew the offense almost as well as we did and would be calling plays as we ran them. Sundays are the real test.
However, the D has had minimal disruption. J Wobble gone but Tuitt back. Barron is gone, but Vince is back. The double act of Watt and Dupree return and the secondary is intact. Nobody is lighting the place up (well maybe Watt), but defense is a unit and hunts as a single being, and it is getting better. Watt, Bush, Fitzpatrick all look to be better than last year. It could be an even more dominant defense this season. The interesting part about the defense is the development of the backups because the drop off from the starters is dramatic in places.
The DL is strong, but I have not really heard of any progression behind Heyward, Tuitt and Alualu. Buggs, Mondeaux, Davis etc are still unknowns and McCullers is as ever going to produce this year, honest. He has had quite the career based on being big and little else. Now he has lost weight I hope something happens for him.
The Linebackers are all set, but the players behind Watt, Dupree, Bush and Williams are possibly the most fluid on the team. Gilbert and even rookie Highsmith have made strides towards the backup backer positions but I had hoped to hear more about Ola Adeniyi this camp. He was going to make a move this year. Also, Spillane and Skipper should be improving but the recently returned Jayrone Elliot has managed to put pressure on them. Not a good sign.
Moving laterally for a second, special teams seem settled if only for continuity reasons. Boswell, Berry and Kanaday are the incumbents. I’d like to see Berry improved upon in all honesty but maybe this season isn’t a good time to go with new specialists.
Anyway, back to real Football. The secondary starters are again set. Three basically pro bowlers plus Terrel Edmunds. He does stick out somewhat with his lack of production. At some point this first rounder needs to step up and prove his ability. He is currently the weakest link on a potentially elite defense.
The players behind this group are an interesting bunch. Curtis Riley, recently signed, looks like he may be the top back up at safety already. Dangerfield is a core special teamer. Mike Hilton is almost the 5th starter because of sub package football. Marcus Allen and Cam Sutton have emerged as an intriguing pair of hybrid safeties/ILBs/corner that could give the D great flexibility with what it can call using the same personnel. Their intelligence and flexibility could be a great plus in this age where base defense is almost a redundant term.
So, as I said there is a lot of interest in this season’s team, but little in the way of drama. How the pieces fit together, and which pieces are 53 or PS 16 could provide a few raised eyebrows, but overall with this being a season where the virus may impact more than injuries, I can see not only the practice squad being needed but possibly some of the 11 bottom ranked players on standby. At this minute I’ll take anything that gives me a full season of Steelers Football.
Just a final few thoughts. Although I said nothing big was really in the mix for this season, I think that the big and very real drama for the Steelers will be next year. With the salary cap possibly shrinking from $198M to $175M, the Steelers long held habit of kicking money down the road may well come back to bite them. There are many Steelers in line for new contracts next year, Pro Bowl Steelers that really the team cannot afford to let go, and literally will not be able to afford to keep.
Players entering the final years of their contracts include defensive lineman Cameron Heyward, the team’s highest-profile free agent in 2021, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, running back James Conner, offensive linemen Matt Feiler, Zach Banner and Alejandro Villanueva, outside linebacker Bud Dupree; defensive end Tyson Alualu, and cornerbacks Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton.
That’s before the team get to upcoming talks with outside linebacker T.J. Watt. This group represents a third of the Steelers starting offense and defense, plus core sub package players. They cannot all be signed with $175M, plus there is a large elephant in the room for next season… #7. Ben is due $41M next season. That is an eye watering amount. Nigh on a quarter of the total money the Steelers have available. Last season the team found out that they could not challenge for a Superbowl without #7. Next season they could find out that they cannot compete for one with #7, regardless of how well he plays.
Unfortunately, the amount of salary cap that he will be taking up during a reduced cap year will take away the team’s ability to sign/keep the quality of player necessary to compete for a Superbowl. Can’t win without Ben, can’t win with Ben. 2020 is going to be interesting; 2021 is going to get very interesting.
Contribution by Simon Cutts, Southampton Stags receivers coach