It’s hard to improve on the performance the Pittsburgh Steelers defense put together last season. As a unit, the defense finished fifth in the NFL in yards allowed (304.1) and points per game allowed (18.9). The group also led the league in takeaways with 38.
The Steelers’ defense enters the 2020 season down two starters, but they can still be the same or better than a year ago thanks to the return of another starter from injury and more time in the system for newer defensive starters.
And, with the coronavirus pandemic causing an altered offseason and preseason, the Steelers’ continuity on defense will be a significant advantage in 2020. After sizing up the offense last week, let’s look at the outlook for the defense going into this season.
Additions: Carlos Davis (seventh-round pick), Chris Wormley (trade with Baltimore), Cavon Walker (XFL), Dewayne Hendrix (XFL), Josiah Coatney (undrafted free agent), Calvin Taylor (undrafted free agent)
Losses: Javon Hargrave (Eagles)
Better, worse or the same? Same
Yes, the Steelers have to cope with the big loss of Hargrave. That shouldn’t go unnoticed, and it will undoubtedly affect the defensive line. But they will get a boost from the return of Tuitt, who was on pace for his best season when he tore his pectoral muscle against the Chargers in Week 6 and finished the year on IR. Before the injury, Tuitt had 3.5 sacks, and if he can return to that form, he’ll complement Pro Bowl defensive end Heyward.
The Steelers have a couple of options at nose tackle, but all are downgrades from Hargrave, who played himself into a significant contract with the Eagles after a four-sack, 60-tackle season. Like on the offensive line, coach Mike Tomlin will begin the replacement search with veterans because of the unconventional offseason. Alualu, a seven-year NFL veteran who played 40% of defensive snaps last season, will get the first shot at nose guard.
“Tyson’s a veteran football player that’s been here, that knows how to play the game,” Tomlin said. “He and Dan [McCullers] are probably going to start, but he will probably take the first snap based on the things that I talked about relative to current circumstances. Then we will go from there.
“We are going to have a hardcore plan but be light on our feet and plan to adjust based on what it is that we see.”
Better, worse or the same? Same
It’s hard to improve on the job done by the Steelers’ linebackers last season. The tandem of Dupree and Watt combined for 26 sacks, and after the team franchise-tagged Dupree, the duo will be back together in 2020. If Dupree can stay healthy another season, he and Watt will continue to be the cornerstone of the stout defense. The Steelers also added OLB Highsmith in the draft, but he’ll likely see limited snaps behind Dupree and Watt.
Despite releasing Barron, the Steelers didn’t add an inside linebacker in free agency or the draft. With his departure, the Steelers are pretty thin at the position. Bush played 82% of snaps last season, and he said earlier this summer he’s prepared to play even more if necessary. He and Williams likely will see the most playing time, but the Steelers have potential depth in Gilbert, a 2019 sixth-round pick, and Spillane.
“It is up to Ulysees to get on the field,” Bush said in May. “I think he is a really good player. He is really talented. I think he has all the intangibles, all the athleticism to get out there and play. It is up to him to put it all together. If it comes down to me and Vince taking all the reps, then I don’t think we have a problem doing that.”
Still, the inside linebacker group is one of the thinnest positions on the team with a small margin for error.
Losses: Artie Burns (Bears)
Better, worse or the same? Better
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With five interceptions and one forced fumble and recovery last season, Pro Bowler Haden got most of the attention in the cornerbacks group. But Nelson was pretty solid, too, and didn’t allow a touchdown catch. With a second offseason in Pittsburgh under his belt, Nelson, who had one interception and a fumble recovery in his first year with the Steelers, likely won’t be flying under the radar for much longer. And the group has a chance to be even better than last season.
“Joe is my guy,” Nelson said in June. “We are like Batman and Robin. Ever since I got to Pittsburgh, he has always been a very genuine guy just all around, on and off the field. I think we bounce off each other. We are both highly competitive guys. We feed off each other on the field. If he makes a play, I feel like I have to make a play. I feel like we pair together very well.”
In addition to bringing back the position’s headliners, the Steelers also return Hilton, the starting nickel who appeared in 62% of defensive snaps last season, and versatile backup Sutton. After only losing Burns, who played just 6% of defensive snaps last season, the corners are the most complete defensive position group entering 2020.
Losses: Sean Davis (Washington)
Better, worse or the same? Better
The Steelers lack depth at safety, but the position group will be better in 2020 for one reason: Fitzpatrick. Acquired by sending a first-round pick to Miami early last season, the Steelers got a ton of production out of Fitzpatrick in his first abbreviated season in Pittsburgh. But they’re just scratching the surface of what he can do. As a free safety, Fitzpatrick had five interceptions last season, all coming in the first six weeks of his arrival in Pittsburgh.
“I think teams started to take less shots downfield or less shots where I was,” Fitzpatrick said. “If I was in the half, there weren’t going to be targets in that area where I was. I don’t know if it was part of a game plan or the makeup of the quarterback, but I did realize a difference.”
To prevent the same drop-off this season, Fitzpatrick wants to be more versatile in the defense — something he’ll be more capable of doing after an offseason of further learning the Steelers’ system. Ironically, one of the reasons he wanted out of Miami was to focus on one position.
“If the coaches want me to move around, I’ll move around,” Fitzpatrick said in May. “If they don’t, then I don’t need to. I wouldn’t say it’s a goal. If they need me to move around, I’ll learn the system and get it down to a ‘T’ just in case I have to or if they ask me to move.”
That could mean using different packages with Edmunds, who returns as the starting strong safety, or with rookie Brooks Jr., who has the size (5-foot-11, 210 pounds) of a hybrid safety-linebacker.
Chiefs regroup after starters Damien Williams, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif opt out – Kansas City Chiefs Blog
The Kansas City Chiefs thought they had two advantages over most of their competition heading into training camp, one being startling continuity for the salary-cap era and the other a high-scoring offense led by quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Those advantages might still be there, though not in the abundance they were before the calendar turned to August. Two offensive starters, running back Damien Williams and guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, opted out of playing this season amid the coronavirus pandemic, dealing the Chiefs a blow.
“It hurts,” tight end Travis Kelce said. “The guys that we have in that locker room can fill that void. I honestly believe that. We have an unbelievable roster, and I’m excited to see how this group molds together.”
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There’s no reason to believe the two player losses will unravel everything the Chiefs have going for them. Eighteen starters still return from the Super Bowl LIV win over the San Francisco 49ers. That familiarity could provide an edge in a season without offseason practice and preseason games and with an abbreviated training camp.
But Williams was the Chiefs’ leading rusher last season and a Super Bowl star. He ran for 104 yards against the 49ers and scored the final two touchdowns in the fourth quarter of the 31-20 victory.
The Chiefs also lost their second-leading rusher, LeSean McCoy, who left as a free agent. They did draft LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first round, but their veteran running backs have a total of five NFL starts among them.
The Chiefs already had big expectations for Edwards-Helaire as a rookie. Now he must deliver.
In an illustration of just how important he is to the Chiefs this season, a defensive player, linebacker Anthony Hitchens, said, “Our job [on defense] is to get him ready for Week 1: show him different looks, practice hard, try to strip the ball out, playing tight coverage on him.”
The Chiefs also lost Stefen Wisniewski to free agency, so they need starters at both guard positions. They had to mix and match along the offensive line last year. Injuries forced them to start five different line combinations.
So between free-agent additions Kelechi Osemele and Mike Remmers, part-time 2019 starters Andrew Wylie and Martinas Rankin and young players in Nick Allegretti and Lucas Niang, the Chiefs have plenty of candidates.
The Chiefs won’t have as much time to sort through the possibilities as they usually do.
“The older guys, the more they play, the easier it is to mesh them together,” tackle Mitchell Schwartz said. “Obviously, [Osemele] has had an awesome career and Remmers has had a really good career too. Those are guys who understand fits and understand how to play with people, next to people. So that’s not something I’m too worried about.”
Giants lose third opt-out player with CB Sam Beal’s decision
According to the NFL’s daily transaction wire, linebacker Josiah Tauaefa was also removed from the reserve/COVID-19 list one day after being placed on it.
Beal becomes the third Giants player to take the opt-out route, joining offensive tackle Nate Solder and wide receiver/kick returner D’Mari Scott. Under the agreement reached between the NFL and NFLPA, players had the option of opting out of the upcoming season without penalty by 4 p.m. on Thursday. The opt out is irrevocable.
The Giants already had question marks at cornerback prior to Beal’s decision. Cornerback DeAndre Baker is on the commissioner’s exempt list and faces charges of armed robbery and aggravated assault with a firearm. He is unlikely to play another snap with the Giants.
Baker was a first-round pick last year. Beal was a third-round supplemental pick out of Central Michigan in 2018 who missed his entire rookie season with a shoulder injury. He played in six games with three starts last season and finished with 25 tackles and one pass defended. He missed the season finale with a shoulder injury.
Beal, 23, was expected to be in the mix, along with second-year cornerback Corey Ballentine, for a starting spot opposite offseason acquisition James Bradberry. Rookie fourth-round pick Darnay Holmes also appears to be in serious contention for the job.
Beal’s absence now leaves the Giants with an obvious void and a lack of depth. A source indicated recently — even before Beal’s opt out — that the team was searching for cornerback help on the waiver wire or via free agency. Among the options on the open market are veterans Logan Ryan, Aqib Talib and Dre Kirkpatrick.
New coach Joe Judge has firsthand experience with Ryan and Talib from their time in New England. Ryan appears to be the most likely option, especially since the Giants will gain $13.55 million in salary-cap space from Solder’s decision to sit out the 2020 NFL season.
Growing frustrated by suspension, Cowboys’ Randy Gregory lashes out, says he’s ‘doing everything right’ as he aims for reinstatement
Dallas Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory took to social media Wednesday to say he is being treated unfairly by the NFL as he attempts to be reinstated from an indefinite suspension.
“I really miss playing football and being a player in the NFL,” Gregory wrote. “I’m doing everything that is asked of me and I’m in great shape physically, mentally and emotionally but I’m being held back from furthering my career because of Covid and testing. I’ve been ready to play and test for months but still have gotten little to no help to resolve my reinstatement. I’m asking more questions than I’m getting answered. It’s amazing that the powers that can keep passing the buck and also use this pandemic as a way to prevent me from joining my team. Telling me to just sit and wait in limbo over things I can’t control, all the while doing everything right off the field is unfair and flat out wrong!!!”
A request for comment from the NFL regarding Gregory’s status has been made.
For all of you that’s wondering… pic.twitter.com/gj7nWJpw5e
— Randy Gregory (@RandyGregory_4) August 5, 2020
Gregory applied for reinstatement in March, according to sources. Last month ESPN reported his attempt to return had not been denied but he was not cleared to return either and sources said there was some optimism he would be allowed around the team in some fashion even if he could not practice.
Gregory is on an indefinite suspension for multiple violations of the league’s substance-abuse policy dating to his rookie year in 2015.
Under terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, players can no longer be suspended for a positive test for marijuana, but because he was penalized under the old system he would still need to be welcomed back by commissioner Roger Goodell. A player can continue to be suspended for missing tests or not taking part in a care plan.
Gregory missed all of last season after playing in 14 games in 2018 and finishing with six sacks, which was second on the team. He missed 30 of 32 regular-season games in 2016 and ’17 because of suspensions. He has played in only 28 of a possible 80 regular-season games in his career.
The Cowboys selected Gregory in the second round in 2015 and have stood by him, including agreeing to an extension with him last year that was ultimately blocked by the league. The team had a short-term extension for Gregory blocked last year by the league because of the suspension.
Earlier this offseason, pass-rusher Aldon Smith was conditionally reinstated by the NFL after multiple suspensions that have kept him off the playing field since 2015. Smith has passed numerous tests within the last year and has agreed to a strict after-care program.
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