As the 2021 NFL season approaches within fingertip reach, the Pittsburgh Steelers will have a chance to thoroughly evaluate what they have on the roster. Training camp and preseason will give a more adequate opportunity for late-round draft picks and UDFA’s to show how they can contribute to the 53-man roster. One thing we should all be excited about that has been a healthy trend is on defense: versatility.
It feels like yesterday our 2016 defense late in the season was darn near crippled and lacked both depth and versatile players. William Gay and Ross Cockrell were basically a zone-only type of corners—lacking effective man-to-man skills for four quarters. There was almost no pass rush, sub-par safety play, and a banged-up defensive line. The only true guys that could be seen as “thriving” were Javon Hargrave, Ryan Shazier, and Stephon Tuitt. Artie Burns was playing well for a rookie.
After a beat down by the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game that year, the Steelers realized their defense simply couldn’t play the old school way. By that I mean one guy does one assignment and you just plug and play them when needed. That era of defense is dwindling. They began a transformation that has brought the Steelers defense to life. The Steelers’ defense today is one filled with speed and the key to modern defense: versatile players.
When you look at the projected Steelers defense for 2021, you have a lot of talent that thrives off of versatile skill sets. I am going to break down each group and give some explanation as to why this level of versatility simply excites me. I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited to watch preseason football!
The age of the 3-4, 4-3 defenses are being dwindled. Now the NFL relies heavily on sub-packages to combat a pass-happy era of football. The Steelers defensive line not only has depth, but it also has guys that can play effectively anywhere between the tackles (and even impact on the edge).
Tyson Alualu not only can line up over center and assume the nose guard type of role, but he can also relieve Tuitt and/or Cameron Heyward in their spots. The same thing can be said about Chris Wormley and his ability to play anywhere in those spots. We know Heyward and Tuitt bring that same thundering versatility. You want a 1, 2, 2i, or 3 technique? These guys can handle it and make an impact. Even the young, raw talent behind the first four guys have shown flashes of versatility—though not quite as effective yet.
With Vince Williams retiring, it is going to be up to Robert Spillane, Ulysees Gilbert III, or Buddy Johnson to step up to the plate and make plays. However, don’t rule out Marcus Allen—who has developed himself into a hybrid safety/linebacker type of player. Spillane played admirably in place of Devin Bush; flashing instinct, coverage skills, and steel toughness before his own injury. As for UGIII, he has battled back injuries and Buddy Johnson is a talented (but raw) rookie.
Of course, then have the main man who is expected to anchor the defense: Devin Bush. Not only does he possess incredible speed and toughness, but his football instincts are solid as well. He may be coming off of injury, but he was showing flashes of a second-year leap before his exit against Cleveland last season for the year. He can play and matchup where the Steelers need him—a true three-down linebacker.
Not only can these guys set and rush the edge, but they can also drop back into coverage, and they can move around on the defensive line as well. You may recall seeing Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt being lined up along the interior of the line a few times last year—often causing disruption and mayhem. However, not only are these two able to play along the line and make plays, a fresh signing can too…
Melvin Ingram will have a significant impact on this defense. His versatility is incredibly valuable. With the Los Angeles Chargers, they used him along the edge, interior, and even the occasional drop-off into coverage. He can rush the passer from virtually anywhere on the defensive line. I can imagine and get super pumped to think of packages with Ingram, Heyward, Tuitt, Highsmith, and Watt all on the field in 3rd and long situations… moving any of those guys around to create havoc. It’s beautiful.
Whether or not the Steelers will add to this group remains to be seen. However, the guys they have now are not only better than the 2016 group, but they are also a lot more versatile. Cameron Sutton can play inside or outside—with his role expected to be primarily on the outside this year. Joe Haden can follow someone inside and play it well—he did it to Julio Jones in 2018 effectively! Terrell Edmunds can play run fits and be that box safety while Antoine Brooks has been getting a lot of work in the slot and played safety in college; the same thing with 2021 draft selection, Tre Norwood!
The most versatile guy in the secondary is Minkah Fitzpatrick—and it’s not going to be debated. He can simply play anywhere in the secondary. I’d trust him one-on-one in the slot or outside, in the box, up top, or even running circles in the field. He is simply that special. This secondary feels night and day better than it did 5-8 years ago—and it isn’t even close. They not only possess phenomenal talent, but they also possess strong versatility.
The defenders who were a one-role type of player are low in demand. Being a versatile player is demanded in the game more than ever—we see it especially on the offensive line. The Steelers can, and will, thrive off of their versatility. With the opportunity to add more guys into the mix upcoming, who knows how much better this defense will look come September 12th.