PITTSBURGH – The Steelers are ready to see if their new-look defense can produce some old-school results.
After allowing 17 plays of 40 or more yards last year, the Steelers will open this season Sunday against Cleveland with four new starters in place from the group that opened last season.
But can Jarvis Jones at outside linebacker on a full-time basis, Ryan Shazier at inside linebacker, Cam Thomas at defensive end and Mike Mitchell at free safety make that much of a difference?
“We have a lot we’ve got to prove in stopping these big plays,” said defensive end Cameron Heyward. “We can’t allow our defense to get gutted like that.”
Technically, Heyward is a new starter on the defense. He didn’t start the first three games last season, playing on a part-time basis before finally replacing Ziggy Hood at defensive end.
Like Jones, who also was at times a part-time starter last season, he was part of a Pittsburgh defense that fell to an uncharacteristic 13th in the league in total defense. The Steelers had led the NFL in total defense in four of the previous six seasons and never ranked lower than fifth since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007.
That all changed last season.
In seven of their eight losses, the Steelers gave up 13 plays of 40 or more yards.
Just as important, the sack total fell to 34, the lowest since 1990.
“I think the difference between us and in years past is just our overall athleticism,” said linebacker Jason Worilds. “There (are) people who can make game-changing plays just about everywhere on this defense. If we can do those things, that will make us good. That will take us to the next level.”
To improve, the Steelers will need more out of Jones, their first-round draft pick in 2013.
Jones had just one sack in 14 games – including eight starts – last season. He will pair with Worilds, who had a team-high eight sacks, to provide the majority of the defensive pressure.
For the Steelers defense to be effective, that duo must get at least 15 to 20 sacks.
“Absolutely. We’re the outside linebackers. We’re the pass rushers around here,” Jones said. “We’ve got to live life like it’s third-and-8. We’ve got to make plays. We’ve got to move around and get the quarterback out of his comfort zone. We’re very capable of doing that. Jason had a great year last year. I’m looking forward to him having an even better year this year, as well as myself.”
Shoring up the run defense will help improve the pass rush.
The Steelers allowed opponents to average 4.3 yards per carry last season, the most since 1999. But in the preseason, the Steelers again allowed opponents to average 4.3 yards per carry.
On Sunday, they’ll face a revamped Cleveland backfield that features free agent signee Ben Tate.
“He’s a terrific zone-scheme runner,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. “That is the running approach they choose to employ.
“He really fits the bill in that regard. … He has great contact balance and vision. He is a one-cut runner, a very efficient runner.”
Zone blocking schemes and good zone runners have given the Steelers fits in the past. They count on defenders being overly aggressive on a play or getting out of their lane. The running back will then hit that hole.
So it will be necessary for the new players on Pittsburgh’s defense to know their assignments and execute them.
“We put in a lot of work,” said Heyward. “Guys spent hour after hour breaking things down to make sure we’re on the same page for practice. We’re going to be ready.”
Odds and end zones
Wide receivers Lance Moore (groin) and rookie Martavis Bryant (shoulder) did not practice Wednesday. Linebacker Sean Spence (knee), long snapper Greg Warren (knee) and tight end Matt Spaeth (hamstring) were full participants.