Steelers Have Talent, Need Communication on Defense

Players saw improvements last week, but room to grow

Josh Rowntree
September 19, 2019 - 3:13 pm

Following the acquisition of defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Steelers are now loaded with defensive talent. But weren't they, already?

Pittsburgh now has ten former first-round picks, including eight starters. That includes multiple Pro Bowlers and a group that, on paper, should be able to carry Pittsburgh following the season-ending injury to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. 

But talent alone does not mean success.

The Steelers are 0-2, having surrendered 61 points in losses to New England and Seattle.  

The talent is not meshing. At least not for appropriate periods of time. 

“It’s about keeping it consistent,” defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. “You have the type of caliber players we have on our defense, so we expect to do that, week in and week out, to give our offense opportunities.”

The defense is out of excuses. The organization brought in cornerback Steve Nelson and linebacker Mark Barron in free agency. It traded up to draft linebacker Devin Bush, who has stumbled out of the gates.

If Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler are unable to make this defense work, you have to seriously wonder when and if they'll ever right the ship here.

“There’s a lot more room for growth, but it was better (against Seattle),” Butler said of the communication breakdowns. “It’s got to become better each week. The guys that are doing it will become used to doing it a little bit more. 

“They’ll understand how fast they’ve got to get than communication done. The NFL don’t give you a lot of time to communicate. They try to hurry you up a little bit, so we’ve got to be ready for it.”

Fitzpatrick is a talent, no question. But it would take time for anyone, let alone a player with 13 career games played and none for his new team, to master the communication intricacies of an NFL defense, especially one with the complexities of Pittsburgh’s.

“He’s doing some great communicating himself,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “As long as he’s able to know what certain calls are, and he gives me a call, and I give him a call, as long as we have that constant communication… That’s something our defense needs to do in general.”

This has become too much like Groundhog Day with Butler’s early season defenses, in which his players, particularly his secondary, are often seen with arms raised and looks of bewilderment. It has happened year after year.

Pittsburgh is in for another tough test this weekend. Tom Brady and Russell Wilson are more skilled and experienced than San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garappolo, but the 49ers are scoring 36 points per game in two road games to begin the year. 

Now they return home, with optimism. The Steelers, meanwhile, will be turning to a second-year quarterback in Mason Rudolph to lead the offense. The biggest way to help him? Actually communicating on defense and letting that talent shine.

“You can always get better with your communication,” cornerback Mike Hilton said. “It shouldn’t stop, no matter how deep into the season. We feel like we made progress in that aspect, but now we’ve just got to put it all together, finish games and make plays.”

If not? Hello, 0-3. Goodbye, season.