PITTSBURGH — When the Pittsburgh Steelers set out to restock their defense ahead of the 2023 season, they did things a little bit differently.
When it comes to strong safety and inside linebacker, the team has two recent archetypes that fit exactly what they’re looking for, players that can do every part of the job and be impactful, three-down stars: Troy Polamalu and Ryan Shazier.
Since Polamalu retired in 2014 and Shazier was injured in 2017, the Steelers have spent dozens of draft picks and free-agent acquisitions in attempting to replace them, with varying degrees of unsuccessful results.
Around the NFL in that same time, both positions have become globally devalued as places where teams have not found it fruitful to spend big money or use big-time draft assets in search of impact talent.
In addition to the many free-agent assets the Steelers have thrown at those positions in the intervening years were first-round draft picks Terell Edmunds and Devin Bush. Both were jettisoned this past offseason.
This time around, in replacing Bush and Edmunds, the Steelers took a different tact. Instead of trying to find a Shazier or a Polamalu, they tried to find them in aggregate.
They needed a fast linebacker for coverage, so they signed Kwon Alexander. They needed a three-level communicator and a sideline-to-sideline tackler, so they signed Cole Holcomb. They needed a sledgehammer that could shed blocks and destroy the run game, so they added Elandon Roberts.
Keanu Neal is a big, strong safety who is most at home in the box and in zone coverage, and can also play linebacker. Damontae Kazee is a centerfielder and deep safety who also has solid man-to-man cover skills.
So far, that approach has been a mixed bag. Obviously, it’s not as good as having a Shazier or a Polamalu. They knew that going in. But is it better than taking a swing at a young player, giving him that whole role, and them being unable to fill the entirety of the physical demands of the position?
In many ways, the jury is still out on that experiment. There have been some ups and downs so far this season.
But there is one unquestioned advantage to the setup, it’s that the Steelers are far better prepared to deal with injuries than they have been in the past. With Minkah Fitzpatrick set to miss his second straight game with a hamstring injury, Kazee has moved to free safety and Neal has stepped into a full-time role at strong safety. Alexander and Roberts will do the same at linebacker with Holcomb out for the rest of the season.
Those players aren’t complete players, but they’re better than relying on inexperienced backups with top players out. So this new strategy has at least on advantage on its predecessor.