5 Players to bolster the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers defense
When Jaylen Warren took the handoff from Kenny Pickett during the first quarter at Acrisure Stadium on Saturday night, dashing nearly untouched on his electrifying, 62-yard TD run, Steelers Nation saw yet another flashing signal that Pittsburgh’s 2023 edition is chocked full of budding talent. Shortly afterwards, Warren’s fellow sophomore teammate Calvin Austin III had the home crowd back on their feet again with a 52-yard punt return.
Given these show-stopping plays by the offense, it was tempting to overlook the equally impressive work of the Steelers’ defense. But the defense not only thwarted Josh Allen’s widely hyped tune-up for the start of the regular season, but also kept Buffalo off of the scoreboard until long after the game’s outcome had been decided.
It’s no secret that attaining the status of legitimate Super Bowl contenders will require upgrading Pittsburgh’s defense as well as the offense fans watched last year. Based on what we’ve seen so far from a group of outstanding, young Steelers defenders, the faithful have every reason to anticipate a significantly improved performance this season.
Ranked in order of importance, here are my picks of five young players who, barring any setbacks, promise to make the biggest impacts on Pittsburgh’s defense in 2023:
1) Keeanu Benton
The Steelers’ rookie defensive lineman appears destined to become a fixture on this team and a bookend run-stopper joining Pittsburgh’s emotional leader Cam Heyward. Unlike the past few seasons, Steelers’ opponents undoubtedly will find it considerably tougher this year to grind out yardage on the ground. Because the DL is the foundation of everything a team accomplishes defensively, Benton’s presence is one big reason why the Steelers’ needle is pointing distinctly upwards.
2) Mark Robinson
Keep your eyes on No. 93, the somewhat undersized LB who plays far bigger and tougher than his physical size. Particularly during the Steelers’ first preseason game in Tampa — and to a somewhat lesser extent in the game with Buffalo — Robinson was roaming the field with reckless abandon. When it comes to upside potential, No. 93 might have more in reserve than any other player on the defense.
3) Nick Herbig
With the kind of edge-rushing capabilities Herbig has demonstrated so far, he looks not only like a potential catalyst in this defense, but also a true “find” in the Steelers’ highly successful, 2023 NFL Draft. Considering how the Steelers defense has suffered in recent seasons when T.J. Watt was sidelined, the ability to plug in another edge-rushing specialist — whether to spell the starters or in the event of injuries — represents a tremendous advantage. And with each opportunity, Herbig appears more likely to be ready to take on this challenge.
4) DeMarvin Leal
Quietly, Leal appears to be putting his game together and rounding into the player Pittsburgh anticipated when selecting him in Round 3 of the 2022 NFL Draft. Like the others on this list, No. 98 shows tremendous potential at the tender age of 23.
5) Joey Porter Jr
With talent to match his Steelers pedigree, Porter Jr. has the same opportunity his father once seized for becoming a long-term star for the Black-and-Gold. He took another step in this direction by grabbing a key interception on Saturday evening at Acrisure.
Combining the overall quality of these young players with established defensive veterans bodes extremely well for a significant upgrade this season. For the time being, the Steelers’ improving offense might be grabbing all of the headlines, but as the 2023 regular season unfolds, Pickett and Company will be chief beneficiaries of the improved defense now taking shape in the Steel City.
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