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Cowboys @ Steelers: Previewing Pittsburgh’s Defensive Personnel

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A look at the defensive strengths and weaknesses of the Cowboys Week 10 opponent.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Pittsburgh Steelers Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

Week 10 brings the third and arguably most formidable AFC North opponent that the Cowboys will face this year as the team heads to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers. Let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of their defensive personnel.

Defensive Line

This group is led by two former first-round picks at defensive end, Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. Both Heyward (6-5, 295) and Tuitt (6-6, 303) have excellent size to hold up against the run, although both provide better pass-rush ability than you would expect out of 3-4 defensive ends. Heyward has racked up at least five sacks every season since 2013, and has three so far in 2016. Tuitt has yet to record a sack so far this season although he had 6.5 last year. The starter at nose tackle is rookie Javon Hargrave, a third-round pick out of South Carolina State. Hargrave lacks ideal size for a 3-4 nose tackle at just 6-2, 305, although he does a good job of using quickness and leverage to his advantage. While Hargrave has done a nice job so far his rookie season this will likely be a spot the Cowboys offensive line looks to take advantage of in the run game.

There isn’t much depth behind the starters as the depth chart is rounded out by 2015 sixth-round pick L.T. Walton and journeyman Ricardo Mathews at defensive end, and 2014 sixth-round pick Daniel McCullers at nose tackle. These three usually don’t get many snaps as the Steelers are very reliant on their starting three and will usually bring in extra linebackers to replace the linemen in nickel and dime formations.

Linebackers

This group is led by 10-year veteran Lawrence Timmons at inside linebacker. Timmons has only made one Pro Bowl, in 2014, and was also named Second Team All-Pro that same season, although he probably deserves a bit more recognition than that as he has been one of the better and more versatile inside linebackers in the AFC over the last five or so years. He is a true three-down linebacker as he is excellent in coverage, but also explosive against the run and he provides the added benefit of being a very good blitzer. Over his 10 seasons in the league Timmons has piled up 33.5 sacks to go along with 10 interceptions.

Next to Timmons on the inside is Ryan Shazier, the 15th-overall pick in 2014 and the player the Cowboys were rumored to want over Zack Martin before the Steelers took him with the pick right before the Cowboys selection. Shazier has had an up and down career so far as he flashes amazing ability and athleticism, but he has also struggled with injuries, playing in only 26 games since entering the league. He most certainly has three-down ability as he is very explosive against the run, he also has great speed (ran a ridiculous 4.38 40 at his Ohio State Pro Day) and is very fluid in coverage. However, the fact that he has been in and out of the lineup throughout his career has limited his effectiveness and not allowed him to live up to the potential of his pure physical ability. Vince Williams, a 2013 sixth-round pick, has played well in Shazier’s absence, although it looks like he will be relegated to the bench as the Steelers generally keep Shazier and Timmons on the field for all three downs.

At outside linebacker the Steelers rotate Jarvis Jones, the 17th-overall pick in 2013, 2015 sixth-round pick Anthony Chickillo, journeyman Arthur Moats, and the ageless wonder, 38-year-old James Harrison. It’s hard to call any of these four “starters” as they all rotate and receive roughly an equal amount of snaps. These four only have a combined five sacks between them on the season (the Steelers as a team are tied for last in the league with 11 sacks), which makes for quite an anemic pass rush. Jones has been a bust of a first-round pick with only five career sacks over four years, Harrison is starting to show his age as he didn’t have a sack up until registering two last week against the Ravens, while Moats has mostly spent his career as a replacement-level journeyman. Chickillo is the most promising of the group considering his potential to grow, and the Steelers staff may be starting to see that as his snaps have increased over the last couple weeks. However, it’s clear that the Steelers lack a reliable presence off the edge after promising second-year player Bud Dupree was placed on injured reserve before the season. Dupree may be able to return in a few weeks, but not in time for Sunday’s game.

Secondary

Like the rest of the Steelers defense, their secondary is a decent enough, but ultimately average group. The starters at cornerback are rookie Artie Burns, the 25th-overall pick this past year, and 2014 fourth-round pick Ross Cockrell. The Ravens game was Burns’ first as a starter, and he responded with an interception, so it would seem likely that he continues in that role. Gay, the former starter who Burns replaced, is a dependable veteran who will come in to play the slot in nickel and dime formations.

This is a decent group of cornerbacks, although they can be beaten for big plays, such as Mike Wallace’s 95-yard touchdown catch and run last week. Both Burns and Cockrell have good size; both are 6-0 and 190+, although neither has shown the ability to be a lock down cornerback early in their careers. Justin Gilbert, the 8th-overall pick by the Browns in 2014, and a momentous bust, rounds out the cornerback depth chart, although he doesn’t often see the field. Rookie second-rounder Sean Davis seems to have fallen out of favor as he primarily plays special teams at this point after getting snaps on defense earlier in the year.

For as average as the Steelers cornerbacks are, their safeties may be worse. Veteran journeyman Mike Mitchell and former undrafted free agent Robert Golden are entrenched as the starters, although neither is particularly great in coverage and both struggle to make plays. On the season Mitchell and Golden have a grand total of zero interceptions, zero forced fumbles, and only three pass deflections between them. This is most certainly a bottom-10 safety duo in the league, and is likely the most glaring weakness on a generally average defense. There is a reason this team ranks in the bottom 10 in the league in passing yards allowed, and this should be an area the Cowboys look to exploit on Sunday.

Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage:

  • Below average secondary and one of the worst safety duos in the league
  • Lack of depth on the defensive line, if the Cowboys can maintain drives they should be able to wear down this group in short order
  • Undersized nose tackle
  • Lack of edge pass-rushing threats
  • General lack of playmakers as the Steelers are tied for last in the league in sacks and tied for second to last in interceptions

What The Cowboys Must Fear:

  • Potentially dominant pair of 3-4 defensive ends, which will be especially troublesome if Ron Leary isn’t able to play
  • Highly athletic, explosive inside linebackers
  • Unpredictable blitz schemes that brings pressure from different angles could, which confuse a rookie quarterback