Leadership on Defense is Key

It was November 3rd, 2013 and the Steelers had just climbed back from a 24-10 deficit on the arm of Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger had hit Jerricho Cotchery for touchdowns on back to back drives to tie the New England Patriots midway through the third quarter.

It all went downhill from there.

The Patriots scored 28 points in the forth quarter and embarrassed the Steelers defense. Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu, and Ike Taylor all started that day. Once a proud unit that patrolled the secondary on the #1 Defense in the NFL had just seen Tom Brady throw for almost 500 yards, 4 touchdowns, and hang 55 points on them. If there were any doubts in anybodys mind that the defense had gotten too old, they ended that day.

“It’s embarrassing for our organization to give up points like that,” Clark said.

“We’re all angry and disappointed,” Roethlisberger said. “Brady is good, so you know that your mistakes have to be limited.”

Taylor was released following the season, and Clark headed back to Washington for a farewell tour with his contract expiring. Polamalu didn’t want to, but he retired. That’s a story for a different day. The transition started that year, but it took a lot of tries before they finally got it right.

The turning point came during the 2016 NFL Draft. Artie Burns, and Sean Davis came with the Steelers first two selections. A first round cornerback that the fans had been clamouring for for years. The first taken in the first round since 1997 to be exact. Then a hard hitting, big play safety in the second round? It couldn’t get much better then that.

Burns was nagged by an injury throughout training camp that slowed his progress until he took over for William Gay halfway through the season. Davis was immediately plugged into the nickel package before pushing Robert Golden out of the starting lineup.

What was it though that helped two rookies transition the Steelers defense? It was selfless veterans that didn’t worry about losing playing time, but the only thing that matters: Winning.

“I’m sitting right between Mike Mitchell and Will Gay most of the time.[In the film room] If they’re spread out in the room, sometimes I sit by Mike, sometimes by Will. Always one of them,” Davis told Dejan Kovacevic of DK Pittsburgh Sports.

“I want them near me. I’m always asking them questions. I’m always in Coach Lake’s ear. Just because I’m out there on the field doesn’t mean I stop learning. I don’t know everything. I make mistakes. Mike and Will, they’ve made mistakes, too, and I’m trying to learn from those so I don’t have to make them. I’d rather learn from their wisdom than my failure.”

Gay was part of the 55 point game in New England. He also was part of the #1 defense in 2008, and 2010. He learned from Deshea Townsend and other veterans like James Farrior, and Casey Hampton about how to be an NFL player, and how to be a good teammate. Now his guidance has transformed a swiss cheese secondary into the #1 pass defense in the NFL.

“I mean, I’m a young guy, all new here last year, and I meet him and it’s like, ‘Ooooooooh, Big Play Will Gay,’ and all that,” Davis continued. “I’m thinking he’s going to be some arrogant guy, and he’s the exact opposite. He’s there for you. He’s the spirit of what we do. I can’t tell you what he’s meant for me personally. And it’s genuine. It’s from the heart.”

Mike Mitchell came when Clark left prior to the 2014 season. He’s one of the most polarizing players on the team. Some fans hate him, players think he’s dirty, can’t keep his emotions in check, and whatever other negative narrative you can think of, but he’s been through it all. He like Davis was a second round draft pick, but he didn’t find the success early in his career like Davis has. Mitchell only started 9 games in 4 seasons for the Raiders before his rookie contract ran out. He signed a one year prove it deal with the Panthers before the Steelers gave him a 4 year contract. He’s had his moments in Pittsburgh, but it’s clear that his leadership on the field has made everyone better.

Burns and Davis slowed down the powerful Chiefs offense.

“If there are certain spots where we feel like we’re leaking here or there, or even if it’s just one play out of 50 like that one … we go to Mike Mitch and Will,” Burns told DK Pittsburgh Sports. “We feel like talking to them, we can fill that leak, seal those holes. They stabilize us. They take care of us. We get mad at ourselves, but they keep us focused.”

The fixing of the defense doesn’t start and end with Davis and Burns, though. It’s come from two very unlikely guys. Joe Haden’s release from the Browns a week before the regular season started has been a God send. He stabilized the position opposite of Burns and hasn’t been a let down. But most unlikely of them all is slot corner Mike Hilton.

Hilton was signed to the practice squad late in 2016. The Steelers were familiar with him because of scouting former second round bust Senquez Golson at Ole Miss. All he’s done is make the most out of every opportunity that he’s had. Those opportunities led directly to him starting week 1 against Cleveland.

He quickly pointed to the same name when he talked about how he’s gotten to this point.

“I’ve got to start with Mike Mitch. He’s our leader. He’s the one who keeps us in line, keeps us on the task at hand.”

Talent and skill are great, but sometimes you need that little extra to get it all to bubble to the top.

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