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Comparing the 2024 Steelers to the 2017 team, Part Two: the Defense

Evaluations of the current Steelers roster suggest this team may be Pittsburgh’s deepest group since 2017. In our previous article on this topic, we compared the offenses of those two squads. This article will examine their respective defenses.

Comparing 2024 to 2017 (The Offense)


The defense in 2017 ultimately proved to be the team’s undoing. Much of that was the result of Ryan Shazier’s career-ending injury in early December on a Monday night in Cincinnati. The team yielded an average of 17 points per game prior to Shazier’s injury. In the five games after the injury, they gave up 28 per contest, including 45 in a miserable home playoff loss to Jacksonville.

Up front, Pittsburgh was loaded. The base trio of Cam Heyward, Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt was stellar, and Tyson Alualu was a backup with starting credentials. Hargrave and Tuitt were just 24 years old and Heyward was 28. It seemed like that unit would dominate for years to come. But they played just two more seasons together before Hargrave departed in free agency for Philadelphia and Tuitt retired soon after.

At linebacker, Shazier started at the Mack and Vince Williams at the Buck, giving the team a great combination of speed and physicality. T.J. Watt was a rookie on one edge and Bud Dupree was entrenched on the other, with 39 year-old James Harrison in reserve. It was a typically solid group who performed well while they were intact. Unfortunately, when Shazier got hurt, there wasn’t a quality reserve who could fill his shoes. The Steelers tried with the likes of L.J Fort, Arthur Moats and Sean Spence but none measured up. The results were telling. Pittsburgh yielded 150 or more rushing yards in just two of the 12 contests in which Shazier played. In the five games he did not, they gave up more than 150 three times.

Things really unraveled in the secondary. Joe Haden was solid at one corner but Artie Burns struggled mightily at the other. At safety, the combination of Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell never meshed. The pass defense was aided by a front that racked up a league-leading 56 sacks. But when the Steelers could not create pressure, they struggled to hold up in coverage.

Overall, the 2017 defense was a unit in transition. They were young, with seven starters under the age of 26 and only Mitchell in his 30s. The secondary was a patchwork collection of free agent signees and draft picks who ultimately would not work out. And their lack of depth came back to haunt them when Shazier went down. If the 2017 defense could have matched the offense, Pittsburgh may have had a championship team.


The story of the 2024 defense feels different. The Steelers will be older than their 2017 counterpart, with just three projected starters under 26 and Heyward (35), Ogunjobi (30) and Watt (30 in October) all out of their 20s. But they appear deeper than the 2017 group, and have more established stars as well.

Up front, Heyward is still going strong and remains in the upper tier of defensive linemen throughout the league. He is joined by Larry Ogunjobi, who is a force when healthy, and second-year man Keeanu Benton, who reminds me of a young Tuitt. Pittsburgh has some quality depth up front as well in Montravius Adams and Dean Lowry. That, and the fact they don’t play nearly as much base 3-4 defense as they did in 2017, suggests they may be on par with the 2017 unit.

The linebacking corps is deeper, too. Patrick Queen is the closest the Steelers have had to an every down, sideline-to-sideline backer since Shazier. Queen’s running mate, Elandon Roberts, is a pretty fair comp to Vince Williams as well. Behind them, rookie Payton Wilson could be a dynamic playmaker and Cole Holcomb, while still recovering from a nasty knee injury he suffered last season, was playing solid football when he went down. The Steelers look to be as talented at inside backer as they’ve been in years.

They also appear more talented at edge. Watt is the league’s reigning sack king and arguably should have been its Defensive Player of the Year last season. Alex Highsmith is better overall than Bud Dupree. And second-year man Nick Herbig is an upgrade over end-of-career James Harrison. There is little behind Herbig, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Steelers reunite with Markus Golden, who provided quality backup play last season and remains an unsigned free agent. But the top three at the edge position are excellent.

The secondary may be the biggest difference between the 2024 and 2017 teams. The cornerback trio of Joey Porter Jr, Donte Jackson and Cam Sutton is superior to the Haden/Burns/Coty Sensabaugh group, and the safety combination of Minkah Fitzparick, DeShon Elliott and Damonte Kazee is far better than Mitchell/Davis/J.J. Wilcox. Pittsburgh is also in good shape from a coordinator standpoint, with Teryl Austin, a former defensive backs coach, calling coverages, as opposed to Keith Butler, who loved to blitz but often left his players on the back end exposed. I don’t expect the Steelers to have an elite secondary in 2024, but they again appear as solid as they’ve been in quite some time.


Few defenses are constructed to withstand the loss of their most dynamic player. Shazier’s injury in 2017 was one the unit could not withstand physically and from which the team seemed never to recover emotionally. If something similar were to happen to Watt or Fitzpatrick in 2024, it’s possible the team would suffer a similar fate.

Still, this unit is deep. Deeper than last season’s, for sure, which ended the year with a practice squad player and a guy plucked off of his couch in December at linebacker. Deeper than the 2022 squad, which had depth issues across the board. Deeper than 2021, where T.J. Watt kept a mediocre unit afloat with his Herculean 22.5 sack season. Deeper than 2020, which suffered through the ill-fitting Robert Spillane-Vince Williams linebacking duo and got so desperate for an athletic Mack they started Marcus Allen for two games. You have to go back to 2019 to find a defense that was as solid across the board as the 2024 group, and even that unit had a glaring weakness in converted safety Mark Barron at the Mack. I don’t see the obvious weakness in the 2024 defense. That makes it a more complete group than any in recent memory, including the 2017 squad.

It’s a good thing, too. With a new coordinator, changes along the offensive line and at quarterback, and depth issues at receiver, the offense may take some time to round into form. The Steelers will need everything they can get from their defense. If the unit can stay healthy and play to its potential, it could be the key to breaking Pittsburgh’s eight-year post-season winless streak.


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