ESPN Insider: AFC North Holes
Pittsburgh Steelers: Linebacker
It is rare to see the Steelers fall out of Football Outsiders' top 10 for defensive efficiency. In fact, it hadn't happened since 2003, when Pittsburgh held the league's 15th-best defense. In the years between, the team posted five top-five defensive seasons, and any fan can tell you this consistent excellence was sustained by Dick LeBeau's exceptional linebacker corps. James Harrison, Larry Foote, LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons are still a fearsome foursome, but there are major cracks showing through.
Foote is 32, declining and coming off an atrocious season by Pittsburgh linebacker standards. His biggest struggles were in coverage, as Foote allowed 7.1 yards per pass according to the FO game-charting project. The 34-year-old Harrison is also clearly on the downside of his great career. Harrison has indicated he is willing to restructure his contract to stay in Pittsburgh, but the Steelers are strapped for cash and might not be able to squeeze the cap hit small enough to make the numbers work. Like Foote, Harrison struggled in coverage. He appeared more tentative, perhaps in response to concerns about fines. Poor performances by Pittsburgh's veterans were indicative of a unit-wide problem defending the pass. On pass coverage against running backs, generally the linebackers' responsibility, Pittsburgh ranked 20th in DVOA; against tight ends, the Steelers finished 31st in DVOA.
The looming question is how ready 2012 third-round draft pick Sean Spence will be in 2013 after suffering a horrific, season-ending knee injury in the preseason. If all goes well, the team can ease Spence into Foote's role, but in the end that leaves the team with Cincinnati washout Brandon Johnson, long-time project Stevenson Sylvester and undrafted free agents Adrian Robinson and Marshall McFadden backing up an increasingly injury-prone list of starters.
The clock is ticking, and the Steelers must look to restock their cupboard of 'backers in the draft. Some early mocks have Jarvis Jones falling to the 17th spot, but the Steelers would be more than happy with Sam Montgomery or Manti Te'o.