It hasn’t been a great season for the defense. An already-shaky unit only faced more adversity as players they rely on left with injury, one after another. The team’s last two first round picks, linebackers Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier, have missed most of the season. Troy Polamalu, the ever-present former superhero, has been replaced by Will Allen, who might as well be his secret identity for how noticeable he is. Ike Taylor had a particularly graphic broken arm, and we all watched Cortez Allen replace him.
Well, they’re all back at practice this week. It’s not clear whether all of them will play, or how much, but getting up to four legitimate starters back in the mix would be an enormous boost to a defense that need it. And with Drew Brees and the Saints coming to town, the Steelers are going to need some plays from their defense if they want to win.
Even if, say, only Ike Taylor plays (and every indication is that he’s good to go), that puts Brice McCain back into a nickel DB role while Taylor and William Gay handle primary receiver duties. If Polamalu makes it back, that shores up the defensive secondary and gives them more chances for turnovers. And any combination of Jones and Shazier even seeing limited time is an improvement over the Vince Williams/Sean Spence/Arthur Moats trio that have been filling the gaps.
The Steelers have played well enough on defense to keep their heads above water, but no better than that. Adding some playmakers, even if they’re getting old or if they’re too inexperienced, could elevate the Steelers back to being a playoff caliber team.
It’s a lot of ifs and speculation, but hey, we’ll see how it plays out on Sunday.