Ask any Steelers fan why the team’s defense will be better this season and the answer often sounds like a quote from Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns: “Hope and Change.”
Yeah? Well, I ain’t buyin’ it.
Steelers fans hope that changes made during the offseason will be enough to turn a defense that was carved up late in the season by the Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens, and Jacksonville Jaguars into something respectable. Or at least something that doesn’t surrender 728 yards and six touchdowns on passes completed by Brett Hundley, Joe Flacco, and Blake Bortles.
Morgan Burnett was brought in to replace Mike Mitchell. Will he play strong or free safety? His skills scream “strong,” but my hunch is the Steelers are thinking “free.” Though, the Steelers could have a lot on their plate when it comes to free safety.
Sean Davis? Terrell Edmunds? Maybe Cam Sutton? Hell, how about giving Tom “Scrap” Bradley a shot to play the position instead while he’s coaching the defensive backs? (That would really be like having “an extra coach out there.”)
Steelers fans, straining to see clearly through their black and gold glasses, will spend most of training camp saying, “competition breeds success n’at!” And they’ll be as wrong as the autograph-seeker lines are long at Saint Vincent College.
No, competition doesn’t breed success. A roster with good players does.
This Steelers defense is stacked with pedigree. A cornerback (Artie Burns), a couple of outside linebackers (Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt), and an All-Pro caliber defensive end (Cam Heyward) are former first-round picks. Stephon Tuitt and Davis were each drafted in the second round to strengthen the front and back end of the defense.
If you want a reason to be optimistic, consider the defense showing signs of returning to vintage Steelers form over the past couple of seasons. Then dare to dream what might happen if all players’ potential matched on-field performance.
For these Steelers, only Heyward has consistently met — and exceeded — reasonable expectations on a consistent basis, though Watt got off to a really good start as a rookie last season. Tuitt is a good player; but like eating sushi for dinner, he's always leaving me wanting more. Burns and Davis took backward steps last season after promising rookies runs.
The proposed shift that would change everything for the Steelers is flip-flopping their outside linebackers. Forgive me if I don’t believe this switch will transform Dupree into the next Lawrence Taylor.
Training camp breeds hope. Changes breed optimism. But there are too many “maybes” on the defensive side for me to think the Steelers will start looking like the Steelers did when they won Super Bowls.
Adam Crowley is a featured contributor covering Pittsburgh’s sports scene. Listen to “The Adam Crowley Show” weekdays from 4-7 p.m. on ESPN Pittsburgh WBGG-FM.