The Steelers defense must get better in order to compete for a championship.  Two former draft classes will determine whether the defense takes the next step to elite, or continues to be average.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been synonymous with great defense since the Steel Curtain was terrorizing opposing offenses in the 1970’s.  However, a mass exodus of aging defensive stars — who helped lead the franchise to its two most recent Super Bowl victories — has resulted in mediocre defensive play over the past few seasons.  To bring the defense back to prominence, the Steelers have focused on infusing it with young, athletic, and versatile defenders.

Pittsburgh has primarily utilized the NFL Draft as its avenue for rebuilding the defense.  Of their seven first-round draft picks since 2011, six were spent on defensive players.  Also, they have selected at least two defensive players within the first three rounds of the last four drafts.

For a team that builds it’s roster almost entirely through the draft — Pittsburgh rarely does much more than dip its toes into the free agency pool — every draft class is critical.  However, perhaps none will prove to be more important to the trajectory of the defense than the 2016 and 2017 classes.

Wisconin’s TJ Watt (42) sacks Western Michigan quarterback Zach Terrell (11). Photo by: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The 2016 draft was defensively dominant for Pittsburgh, as they selected only defensive players in the first three rounds.  Throughout the 2015-16 season, it had become abundantly clear that the defense was starving for talent; that issue was certainly addressed through the  following draft.  All three selections — Artie Burns, Sean Davis, and Javon Hargrave — became major contributors on the defense right away.  They each have plenty of room to grow and develop, but their solid play as rookies last season was promising.  Burns has shut-down corner potential, while Davis and Hargrave can develop into long-time quality starters for the team.

The 2017 draft class will be just as critical in Pittsburgh’s effort to build an elite defense.  For the second straight year, the team used at least two high picks on defensive players — Wisconsin linebacker TJ Watt in the first round, and Tennessee cornerback Cameron Sutton in the third round.

Watt seems to have boom-or-bust written allover him.  The former Wisconsin linebacker has excellent physical tools — great size, good speed and plenty of athleticism.  However, he only started one full season at outside linebacker in college after making a position switch from tight end.  With a desperate need for a young, quality pass rusher to take the reigns from James Harrison, the Steelers can’t afford for Watt to flop.

As for Sutton, he’s a solid corner who doesn’t possess any outstanding traits, but has good technique and sound fundamentals.  He also has enough versatility and size to play safety.  The Steelers like his ability to play man-to-man, as they plan to deploy more man-coverage schemes this season.

The defense already has a solid foundation to build off of with Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, Cameron Heyward, and Bud Dupree.  Now, they just need a few finishing touches to reach an elite level.  If the 2016 class can develop and if Watt proves to be the real deal, the defense could become special.

No matter what, the Steelers will continue to invest in the defense until it becomes elite once again.  In Pittsburgh, they know that defense wins championships, and they have six Lombardi trophies to prove it.