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Rodney Harrison Believes Steelers Will Get Back to Their Roots on Defense

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Steelers defense
Steelers outside linebacker Alex Highsmith sacking Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Jake Browning on Dec. 23, 2023. -- Ed Thompson/Steelers Now

Mike Clay of ESPN released his annual projections for the 2024 season, and he envisions the Pittsburgh Steelers offense being one of the worst units, while he has the defense tabbed as elite.

Clay has the Steelers offense projected to rank as the 27th-best, while the defense is slotted at No. 4. Overall, he has the Steelers ranked as the 20th-best team in the NFL.

The defense should be solid upfront with Cam Heyward, Keeanu Benton, Larry Ogunjobi on the defensive line and T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith at outside linebacker. The Steelers gave linebacker Patrick Queen the largest free-agent contract in Steelers’ history by almost $5 million annually. They also drafted Chuck Bednarik Award winner Payton Wilson in the third round. That should give them a nice trio at linebacker with Queen, Wilson and Elandon Roberts.

The Steelers acquired cornerback Donte Jackson in the Diontae Johnson trade with Carolina. He’s slotted to be the starter opposite of Joey Porter Jr. The Steelers still have question marks at slot corner, but perhaps Anthony Averett could fill that role.

Former New England Patriots safety Rodney Harrison thinks the Steelers made the proper moves this offseason on defense, especially at linebacker. He believes they’re getting back to their roots, which is a hard-nosed, no-nonsense mentality.

“They have some improvements at the linebacker position, and guys healthy and Minkah Fitzpatrick getting back. Cameron Heyward, he’s gonna come back fresh even though he is an older player, still very productive,” Harrison said on NFL on NBC. “But overall, we haven’t talked about their defense and the impact their defense makes. I like the Pittsburgh Steelers and I like them getting back to their roots, being physical on the interior of that defense.”

Pro Football Focus tabbed second-year nose tackle Keeanu Benton as a breakout candidate. A combination of Benton and Heyward in the interior and a much-improved linebacker corps has the defense set up really well, at least on paper.

“Pittsburgh has several sophomores who should burst onto the scene, and maybe none is as tantalizing as Benton,” Bradley Locker of PFF wrote. “The former Badger ranked fourth on the Steelers with 24 pressures despite playing only 516 snaps. There were several moments when Benton looked flat-out unblockable, but the Steelers didn’t use him as much as anticipated as a rookie. With Cameron Heyward experiencing a down 2023 and uncertainty with Larry Ogunjobi’s production, it feels as though Benton should easily exceed his previous snap count and be disruptive on the interior.”