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Pressure at the Top for the Steelers: Expectations for the Highest Paid Defense in 2022

Pressure at the Top for the Steelers: Expectations for the Highest Paid Defense in 2022

The Pittsburgh Steelers defense will have a lot to prove this season, and a lot will be riding on their shoulders. After signing Minkah Fitzpatrick to a four-year deal, and making him the highest-paid safety in the NFL, it’s become very clear to Steeler Nation that this is not a rebuilding year; rather a year to retool and reload, and the expectations are sky-high.

The Investment

According to spotrac.com, the Steelers now have the NFL’s highest payroll on defense, eclipsing a $116 million payroll in 2022, and accounting for over 53% of the team’s total cap space. Keep in mind that a good chunk of that money is invested into three players, and rightfully so – the aforementioned Fitzpatrick, T.J. Watt ($31,118,694 cap dollars per year), and Cam Heyward ($17,406,250 cap dollars per year).

Steelers Minkah Fitzpatrick

Pittsburgh Steelers safety, Minkah Fitzpatrick(#39) practices at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex during the 2022 Minicamp on Wednesday, June 8, 2022. (Karl Roser/ Pittsburgh Steelers)

The money will have to talk sooner than later. After coming off a historically bad and uncharacteristic defensive year in 2021 (yielding over 6,000 yards of offense), the three-headed monster will need to lead the way, but will also need help from the supporting cast, especially from the young secondary and linebackers Alex Highsmith and Devin Bush.

“As far as the physical part goes, he [Bush] looks good out here,” says Brian Flores, Senior Defensive Assistant, and Linebackers Coach, when asked about Bush’s off-season progress. “Everyone else – Miles [Killibrew], Chico [Marcus Allen], and even some of the younger guys like Buddy Johnson… everyone is moving around pretty well… I think there’s a lot of versatility with this group,” he adds.

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Devin Bush (55) lines up during the first half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Pittsburgh, Friday, Aug. 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

A Turn Away from the Modern-Day NFL

Fans should temper their expectations when watching the team this year, specifically on the offensive side of the ball. Today’s league is built around high-powered offenses that can put points on the board at will. Even over the final three years with Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers never finished higher than 22nd in total offense. So far this off-season, the Steelers have spent the lowest in the NFL on offense, and it looks like Mitch Trubisky or Kenny Pickett will be taking snaps throughout the season, likely serving as “game managers” while Najee Harris leads the way. This recipe only puts more pressure on the defense to keep them in games.

Steelers Najee Harris

Pittsburgh Steelers Running Back Najee Harris(22) participates in Organized Team Activities (OTAs) Tuesday May 31, 2022 at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. (Abigail Dean/Pittsburgh Steelers)

What Will Happen

All eyes will be on Fitzpatrick, Watt and Heyward, and all three need to be leaders in the locker room and on the field. At least 20 combined sacks between Watt and Heyward seems doable, and I would expect Fitzpatrick to be more aggressive in zone coverage and to lead the secondary in tackles by the end of the season.

“I got paid, so now I’ve got to play well,” says Fitzpatrick. “These guys trust me with this amount of money, this amount of responsibility, so now it’s my duty to go out there and play at a high level and show them I deserve this compensation,” he adds.

If the defense finishes lower than 10th overall by season’s end, then it has all been for naught. It’s put up or shut up time for the black and gold. All the pieces are there for the defense to return to elite status, and it’s only a matter of time to see if it will happen.

 

How do you feel about the Steelers spending the most on defense? Let us know in the comments, below!

#SteelerNation

I may live in Ohio, but I'm always in Steelers Country! So happy to be repping the black and gold while surrounded by Browns and Lions fans. I've followed the Steelers since I was 7 years old and over time, I've come to appreciate the finer details of the organization. I've been writing and working in the media/communications field since 2017 and I'm excited to be writing for my lifelong sports team!

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