Saunders: Steelers Draft Failures Showing in Depth Issues on Defense
The Pittsburgh Steelers have significant injuries in their defense that contributed to the team’s 38-3 shellacking by the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, that cannot be denied.
What is just as true, though, that the Steelers have gotten plenty of opportunities to see their young depth as a result, and the early returns are not particularly pretty for that group.
In other places, the Steelers seem entirely devoid of young depth, with special teams vets and NFL hangers-on filling out the bottom of the roster, and looking very much like they don’t belong when called upon for a larger role.
In both of those instances, the Steelers’ lack of depth is a testament to the team’s overall lack of success and a necessary change in draft strategy.
One of head coach Mike Tomlin’s most famous sayings is “the standard is the standard.” The Steelers aren’t going to make excuses for injured players, because one of the team’s jobs is to have ready backups. Injuries are a near-sure occurrence in the NFL. The Steelers expect their backups to bring a level of play that is a testament to the standard. That isn’t to say the Steelers expect practice squad call-up Josh Jackson to be able to do all the same things as Ahkello Witherspoon. But they expect to be able to win games, no matter who is in the lineup.
“Cliches are cool, but guys, through their efforts and playmaking, they make cliches real,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “Things that we live by such as ‘the standard is the standard’ have been made real over the years by guys stepping up in similar adverse circumstances.”
Defensive captain Cam Heyward broke that down on Sunday, as well, in the immediate aftermath of the loss to the Bills.
“So what?” Heyward said when asked about the missing bodies on his unit. “Everybody’s got injuries. We’re in the National Football League. This is the chance for guys to step up. I’ve seen plenty of guys step up before. There’s been countless guys that a lot of people didn’t know their names before they went into a game. They came out of the game, and they were the hero of that game and they want to have prosperous careers. It shouldn’t matter who was in the game. We are a defense. A defense is not just eleven.”
It’s clear that the Steelers did not get enough out of their defensive depth to put up a comprehensive effort against the Bills. To really dive into why, let’s first rewind and talk about the way the Steelers drafted under Kevin Colbert for most of his tenure. While the Steelers had Ben Roethlisberger and were regular contenders for the Super Bowl, the Steelers used the draft extremely well.
SUPER STEELERS STRATEGY
Those teams were so solid that even high first-round draft picks like Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu weren’t drafted with the intention of them playing in their rookie years. So if the Steelers were filling future needs with top picks, what use did they have for the later rounds?
The Steelers almost never needed those players to pan out. Instead, they used those third-day picks on boom or bust propositions. If they panned out, great, the Steelers got a draft surprise. If they didn’t, that’s fine, too, because most of them were never going to make the team.
The Steelers 2005 NFL Draft class is a good example of this strategy. Of the five day-three picks, three never played a down for the team, two played only minimally and Chris Kemoeatu became a multi-year starter at guard. That was a successful draft for that era of Steelers team. They didn’t have seven open roster spots to put seven rookies on, anyway. (Heath Miller, Bryant McFadden and Trai Essex in the first three rounds wasn’t bad, either.)
That’s basically how things continued for the Steelers throughout the Roethlisberger Era, and why the Steelers at the same time had multiple late-round success stories — we must mention Antonio Brown here — and also had an overall middle-of-the-road success when it comes to the amount of productivity they got out of each draft class.
WINDS OF CHANGE
But by 2018, that paradigm was shifting. The Steelers no longer had overwhelming depth and no longer figure to have a star quarterback in Roethlisberger through most of the rookies’ time in Pittsburgh.
Starting with the 2019 NFL Draft, the Steelers probably needed to shift that strategy in order to greater prioritize the needs of a rebuilding team. The Steelers played eight members of their 2019 class, all six in 2020, all nine in 2021 and have already seen contributions from four of the seven in 2022. These are no longer Steelers that don’t need every draft pick and can afford to have multiple unproductive misses per class.
The problem is, they’re still not getting much value from their late-round picks. The Steelers had six third-day draft picks in 2019, and only two of those players remain on the roster. One, Benny Snell Jr., has played only special teams, while the other, Zach Gentry, is at providing value for his slot as a backup tight end. But with the team also failing to get a star player in by taking Devin Bush with the No. 10 overall pick and missing on third-round cornerback Justin Layne, the team is not getting enough out of that draft class this year.
The same can be said for 2020. Alex Highsmith looks like a third-round steal, but Chase Claypool has been only average for a wide receiver of his draft slot. Fourth-rounder Kevin Dotson has become a starter at guard, but not an especially dominant one. The others, including fourth-round running back Anthony McFarland Jr. are on the practice squad or have been released.
The giant 2021 class appears to be struggling most of all. Najee Harris has underwhelmed as a workhorse running back, Kendrick Green lost his starting job, Dan Moore Jr. has a tenuous hold on a role at left tackle, Buddy Johnson was cut, Isaiahh Loudermilk has yet to dress in a game this season, Quincy Roche was lost on waivers and Tre Norwood seems playable as a Dime defender, but has been badly exposed every time he’s been given a larger role.
With so much of the Steelers defense injured, they have used 10 third-day draft picks on defensive players over the last four classes, and none have been able to be the kind of replacement player that Heyward described above.
Either the Steelers did not see the need to adjust their draft philosophy change as the needs of the team shifted int he late part of the last decade, or they did see that need and just were unable to successfully adjust. Either way, the Steelers past draft failures are the reason the current team’s depth is lacking.