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Stephon Tuitt (George Gojkovich / Getty Images)

The 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers offense has high expectations. Even with the loss of Martavis Bryant for the year, the retirement of Heath Miller and the four game suspension looming over LeVeon Bell’s head, the offense is expected to put up lofty numbers. After all, they still have Big Ben, AB, Wheaton, DeAngelo Williams and Sammie Coates.

But are those expectations fair, can they be lived up to?  The answer to both questions is; YES.
The issue however is with the above expectations and potential outcome on the offensive side of the ball, many people want to give the defense a pass, overlook them or just genuinely don’t want to ask them to deliver.

That has to change and the defensive players know this. “We have something to prove, we’re going to be great this year” said Bud Dupree outside of the team lunch room after morning practice.  He’s right, they do have to prove something and they have the potential to be just as great as the offense, which should allow for less pressure on the offense to have to put up 28 points a game.

The defense may be young but they started to put it together last year. Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward are both all pro caliber defensive ends and with another year of experience, they should be that much better. They are the new version of Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith and can be just as dangerous.  I expect rookie Javon Hargrave to start at defensive tackle and at 305 pounds, he’s deceptively quick and extremely disruptive.  With Tuitt and Heyward on both sides of him, he won’t be short on leaders to help coach him on the field of play.

The linebackers continue to get better by the year, Dupree has high expectations for the team but also himself. When asked if double digits sacks were in his future he stated; “that’s the goal”.  It should be and quite honestly, he’ll achieve that. He may be the best linebacker they have but pair him with the progressing Ryan Shazier (if he can stay healthy), savvy vet Lawrence Timmons, Jarvis Jones and the ageless wonder James Harrison (that unit’s coach on the field) and they can impose fear in the opposing quarterbacks on a weekly basis, much like their predecessors of Joey Porter, James Farrior, LaMar Woodley and Timmons once did during the Super Bowl runs a decade ago.

The defensive backfield still has questions and this is the unit that could make or break the entire season for the black and gold.  We know that Mike Mitchell at free safety should deliver and the expectation is William Gay will be the number one corner (which might concern some out there) but the questions really start being asked with the strong safety and second corner positions.

Strong safety will in all likelihood be a battle between 2013 fourth round pick Shamarko Thomas, who’s been a disappointment to date and rookie 2nd round pick out of Maryland, Sean Davis.  Logic would say Thomas should be the guy to step up and deliver based on his experience but my gut tells me it’s Davis. Partially because I don’t trust that Thomas can play at this level, he’s not shown that he can in three seasons to date and partly because I just believe Davis is that good. Either way, the team is looking at a rookie or a disappointment in that spot and that could pose problems.

The second corner spot will be battled out between Ross Cockrell and rookie Artie Burns. Burns, the Steelers first round pick is going to be a good player and will most likely make a big impact early. I think he’s the guy and is of no real concern other than having to match up with some experienced and fast NFL vets.  I don’t trust Cockrell and despite some big plays last year, I actually don’t think he’s too talented and shouldn’t be a guy who plays outside of the nickel package.

Time will tell how far both units can and will take this squad but it’s is no longer the era where the offense should be accountable for everything. Despite their plethora of youth, the defense has experience, talent and the motivation to take this team a long way.

Mike Pelaia hosts the website Steel Nation Association http://www.steelnationassociation.com – Covering the Steelers and helping Children’s Hospital All Day Everyday. You can e-mail him at mike@steelnationassociation.com.

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