The Pittsburgh Steelers put together their finest performance of the past two seasons last Sunday night against the Carolina Panthers. It may have been a costly victory, however. Three defensive starters went down with injury, at least two of whom are expected to miss significant time. The question therefore becomes how the Steelers fill those holes.
In my game recap, I tossed in a line about not being so sure the back-ups are a steep downgrade from the starters. Generally speaking, I still believe that. Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier might be great some day but that day is definitely not here. With Shazier, you can forgive his lapses because being a rookie playing in Dick LeBeau‘s notoriously complex defense has to be like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded. Jones, on the other hand, is in his second season and despite seeing significant playing time last year, really hasn’t shown much of anything yet in terms of being an elite pass rusher.
Perhaps the light will eventually go on for Jones – remember we all thought Lawrence Timmons and Cam Heyward were underachievers until they suddenly flipped the switch. In the meantime, Arthur Moats looks like he’ll perform at least as well if not better than Jones with newly unretired James Harrison brought back just in case. As for Shazier, he’s showed flashes but he’s also had issues, particularly in getting caught out of position and having trouble stuffing the run. Sean Spence isn’t the athlete Shazier is, nor does he have his elite speed – no surprise after a catastrophic knee injury cost him his rookie season. But Spence is a little bigger and a lot smarter as he’s clearly learned from being around. Shazier may be a star in the long run but Spence may prove to help them more in the short term.
Which leaves us with our third injured player, cornerback Ike Taylor. The Steelers have options at the other positions: Spence and last year’s starter Vince Williams at ILB, Moats and Deebo at OLB. The pickins in the secondary, however, are mighty slim. On Sunday, the Steelers turned to third year corner Antwon Blake to play the nickel with Willie Gay moving up to CB2. Blake did not inspire a lot of confidence, to put it mildly. If Blake can’t get the job done, the Steelers next best option is probably to play S Shamarko Thomas in the nickel although Thomas probably doesn’t have the speed to keep up with most slot receivers. Besides Blake and Thomas, all the team has is a journeyman who started a handful of games for Houston last year and a second year special teams jobber.
Could the Steelers maybe look outside the organization for help?
They certainly have a history of doing so. Last year, after losing center Maurkice Pouncey and all internal options proved inept, they pulled Fernando Velasco off the scrap heap. Velasco did a pretty nice job for them until he was injured himself. The last time the Steelers went to a Super Bowl their right tackle was Flozell Adams, who the team dumpster dove for after Willie Colon went down with an injury.
So who is out there that could maybe help the Steelers? How about Champ Bailey. Bailey is 36 and coming off an injury-plagued 2013 where he only played 5 regular season games. He did return for the playoffs and did a decent enough job for the Broncos, at least until the Super Bowl debacle against Seattle. Denver released him for reasons not much different than our handling of James Harrison – they didn’t want an old, injury-prone player making a ton of money on the roster. The Saints signed him to a two year deal but wound up cutting him in training camp – after seeing New Orleans’ D against Brian Hoyer and Cleveland, perhaps not the smartest move. Anyway, Champ has sat at home since then, waiting for his phone to ring. He’s given a few interviews indicating he is ready and willing to return and in any capacity, even if the 12 time Pro Bowler (!) has to play nickel or move to safety.
The Steelers are a stubborn organization. They only tend to address problems when those problems become so glaring there’s no way they can continue to be ignored. With that in mind, the Steelers will undoubtedly roll with what they have until it becomes painfully obvious the secondary needs help. Let’s just hope it doesn’t cost the team too dearly in the meantime.