First, there was the Steel Curtain, then Blitzburgh and then the great defenses of this century which won two Super Bowl titles but earned no nickname.
Now, the Steelers would like you to say hello to their new defense, a stunningly quick transformation which swept out the great, iconic players with Super Bowl rings that continued Friday night with yet another key draft choice.
For the first time in eight years, the Steelers went 1-2 at the top of their draft with defensive players, selecting Notre Dame junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt in the second round. He followed linebacker Ryan Shazier, who was picked Thursday night in the first round.
In the third round, the Steelers drafted 5-foot-8 running back Dri Archer of Kent State, who can fly. He was timed at 4.26 in the 40-yard dash. He’s the kind offensive coordinator Todd Haley always has liked to have as a change of pace halfback.
This time, they do not expect either of their top two draft picks to sit and learn the defense for a few years before they get their shot. With virtually all those old vets gone, they think both players can become rookie starters, which has been unheard of on Dick LeBeau’s defenses in this century.
“Both of these players, if all develops as anticipated, are going to get a lot of playing time,” LeBeau said. “Sometimes in the past, we’ve been in a position where our draft choices don’t necessarily have to play for a year or so. That is definitely not the case in this situation.”
That is because the Steelers have weeded out nearly all the players who helped deliver Lombardi trophies. Only three are left — safety Troy Polamalu, cornerback Ike Taylor and linebacker Lawrence Timmons.
Opportunities abound for young players, and the Steelers expect Shazier and Tuitt to take quick advantage and possibly start from the start.
“As I see it on the roster, that is a true statement,” said LeBeau, who admitted some anxiety before the draft when he viewed the various holes in his defense.
“That anxiety has been quieted greatly. The general manager and head coach have taken two defensive players in the first two rounds. That’s a blessing for us, and we appreciate it. We’ll try to bring their fruits to bear.”
The previous time the Steelers drafted defenders 1-2 came in Mike Tomlin’s first year (2007), when they took Timmons and LaMarr Woodley. Timmons, behind James Farrior and Larry Foote on the inside, did not earn a starting job until his third season. Woodley became a starter in his second season.
Tuitt’s health problems the past year held him back in his 2013 performance at Notre Dame and in this draft, Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell said. A hernia before last season caused him to gain weight and to lose performance. Then, a foot stress fracture of the fifth metatarsal bone was discovered in his medical exam at the combine in February in Indianapolis. He had surgery and a screw inserted in March.
The Steelers have determined that the healing of Tuitt’s foot and his recovery from the hernia are complete. His weight, which ballooned to 335 after the hernia, has settled to around 312, about where they would like this 6-foot-51⁄2 end to weigh.
“If this guy had been healthy coming into his junior year, he probably would have been a top-10 guy drafted,” Mitchell said. “We feel like we got a steal in the second round with our pick.”
The Steelers had a hole at defensive end with the departures of Ziggy Hood and Al Woods, and the free-agent status of Brett Keisel, who started on the right side the past eight seasons.
Drafting Tuitt likely means they will not try to re-sign Keisel, which remained a long shot anyway.
The Steelers now have a line of end Cameron Heyward, nose tackle Steve McLendon and perhaps Tuitt with Cam Thomas, signed as a free agent, a swing man between end and nose.
“We look for this guy to be here for a long time,” Mitchell said of Tuitt.
It all sounded good to Truitt, the first player the Steelers have drafted from Notre Dame since wide receiver Malcom Johnson in the fifth round in 1999.
“Oh, my gosh, it’s exciting,” Truitt said. “It’s a blessing to be part of this defense and tremendous. I can’t wait to get there.”
It is a new defense that has been remade over the past two or three years with the departures of Pro Bowl players such as Keisel, Woodley, Farrior, Foote, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Ryan Clark and James Harrison
“I had some guys that were here for a long, long time, guys who played for 10 or 12 years, and then you lose them and have to start over,” Mitchell said. “A lot of those guys that I had, we grew up together.
After all the pre-draft speculation that the Steelers would draft cornerback-wide receiver or vice versa one-two, they went linebacker and defensive end. It’s possible they could continue hitting the defense hard today when they finish up with six scheduled picks in rounds 4-7.
As for Archer, Haley plans to use him in different ways.
“He’s going to be a dynamic football player with the ball in his hands,” said James Saxon, the new Steelers backfield coach.
Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.
First Published May 9, 2014 11:59 PM