The Steelers are entering a make or break year, and with training camp wrapping up, the depth chart will have to be filled out. For the Steelers, most of their depth chart questions are on the offensive side of the ball, but there are a few critical battles on defense. A prime example is Alex Highsmith, who is pushing for time in the edge rush rotation. With that in mind, here are our predictions of what the Steelers defensive depth chart will look like as the 2020 season begins.
Steelers 2020 Defensive Depth Chart
Starter: Tyson Alualu
Backup: Daniel McCullers
The nose tackle spot for the Steelers is one that has gone through a period of trial and error. They lost Javon Hargrave to the Eagles this offseason, but Tyson Alualu, an experienced, seasoned veteran who has played all up and down the line, is up to the task. This is not a question, but a given that Alualu will be the starter in the Steelers ‘Okie’ front as the zero technique. His strength and quick hands are perfect for this role.
Backup Daniel McCullers is a very experienced veteran himself. Known as ‘Shade Tree,’ McCullers fits more into the mold of a pure run-stuffer. However, he did show up to training camp in great shape. McCullers is reportedly much slimmer and explosive heading into his seventh season. The Steelers do not play much base defense anyways, so this position is less significant, but it is key to note their front alignment when in that Okie front.
Starters: Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt
Backups: Chris Wormley, Isaiah Buggs
Yet again, this is a position where there is not too much to worry about for the Steelers. You have studs in Heyward and Tuitt that makeup one of the best natural pass-rushing duos in the NFL on the interior. These guys are genuine game wreckers for any team that they face. Most opponents this season are going to have trouble handling them.
The real intriguing options come from the backups. The trade for Wormley was interesting. He has a good athletic profile but has never been able to convert that physical upside into anything more than a solid run defender. With some juice and noticeable length, Wormley might have a pass-rushing upside. As for Buggs, he steps into a more prominent role as well. A true technician, his hand usage and pass rush plan are all there for him to produce at a decent rate in a rotational role.
Competition among the Linebackers in the Steelers 2020 defensive depth chart
On the Steelers depth chart heading into 2020, there is no more contested area than both the outside and inside linebacker spots. With young, energetic upstarts trying to get themselves more playing time, it has been a competitive camp for these guys to earn that playing time.
Starters: T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree
Backups: Alex Highsmith, Ola Adeniyi, Tuzar Skipper
Watt and Dupree are one of the best duos in the NFL and will be fine. Skipper is a high-upside player that hopefully can realize his potential by taking a step this year. However, this is where the battle for the primary rotational pass rusher comes into play. Both Highsmith and Adeniyi are guys that have flashed at training camp and have significant expectations behind them.
Adeniyi, who is heading into his third year, may have the edge on experience alone. He was decent at best last regular season, but he came into camp in the best shape of his life. Highsmith, an explosive rookie out of Charlotte, has already turned heads at training camp. He has played with the first-team at times and showed out. Right Tackle Chukwuma Okorafor even called Highsmith a “problem” after facing him. This battle is as close as can be, but the realistic expectation right now is for Adeniyi to open the season as the main guy, but if he wanes, Highsmith will step in.
Starters: Devin Bush, Vince Williams
Backups: Ulysees Gilbert III, Robert Spillane, Marcus Allen
The only one that is officially safe on this depth chart is Bush. The second-year Michigan product is an ascending star on the Steelers defense. Robert Spillane will be a special team standout so should also be fairly safe to be on the roster. Meanwhile, Marcus Allen is working a hybrid role this year after taking reps at inside linebacker. That will help shore up the bottom end of the depth chart.
However, with the departure of Mark Barron, there is a massive void of snaps to fill. Williams, with his experience and communication skills, seems primed to take the majority of those snaps early on, even on passing down. Still, young, athletic Ulysees Gilbert III is pushing Williams this year with a strong training camp. His forte is coverage, and on passing downs, especially in sub-packages, he will threaten Williams’ snap share later in the season. Gilbert needs more time to adjust to the defense after coming off fractured vertebrae in 2019, but as he learns the defense’s intricacies, expect him to take more of the snap share.
The Secondary is Secure
Starters: Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Mike Hilton
Backups: Cam Sutton, Justin Layne
The cornerbacks are pretty secure when all is said and done for the Steelers team. Joe Haden and Steven Nelson were an under the radar good duo last year in the NFL and are primed to perhaps be even better this year in their second year together.
The nickel cornerback spot will see Hilton and Sutton rotate. After an impressive 2019 season, Sutton’s natural man coverage ability seems to be threatening Hilton’s snaps to a degree, but that should at least be evenly split, if not in favor of Hilton. Sutton, as always, will assume the role of dime-backer for the Steelers when they are in that dime package. Meanwhile, Layne looks to develop his raw talents further, as this could be his final year on the bench if he is asked to step and be a starter following what could be Haden’s final season in Pittsburgh.
Starters: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds
Backups: Curtis Riley, Marcus Allen, Jordan Dangerfield
The Steelers starters are rather obvious. Fitzpatrick will look to build on an All-Pro 2019 season while Edmunds looks to realize his full potential. However, it is behind those two where training camp has made things clearer. With Edmunds banged up, Curtis Riley has stepped in to assume the starting strong safety reps. Riley has starting experience and was impressive at training camp, so he will be Edmunds’ backup.
As for Allen and Dangerfield, they will function in different roles. Dangerfield mostly makes the roster due to special teams. Allen is almost exclusively working in the box in a downhill capacity, meaning he may be limited in coverage, especially in two-high shells. The Steelers backup free safety is still unknown. It will likely be either Riley or Sutton, who both are versatile and have experience playing there in the past.