For a defense hoping to return to its traditional top form, the Pittsburgh Steelers can’t stop hemorrhaging players.
Since free agency began three days ago, the Steelers have watched defensive tackle Ziggy Hood sign with Jacksonville, defensive end Al Woods go to Tennessee and the release of LaMarr Woodley led to the Pro Bowler’s lucrative deal with Oakland.
Those moves notwithstanding, the Steelers already made peace with safety Ryan Clark’s imminent departure, and the possible retirement of defensive end Brett Keisel due to his refusal to play under a minimum contract.
Pittsburgh was No. 13 in total defense in the NFL last season, a year removed from when they held the top spot. A lack of salary cap space and top defensive players hitting free agency could mean an even bigger slide for the Steelers next year.
However, over the last two days Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert has stopped some of the bleeding with a five-year, $25 million deal for former Carolina safety Mike Mitchell, and re-signed safety Will Allen to a one-year deal. Mitchell recorded four interceptions for the Panthers defense last season and at 26 he’s just about to hit his prime.
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According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the team has already met with free agent defensive end Alex Carrington and nose tackle Cam Thomas.
With roughly $14 million in salary cap space left, Carrington could be signed on the cheap since he only played in the first three games of last season before suffering a torn thigh muscle. The former 2010 third round pick also played out of position in the Buffalo Bills 4-3 defensive scheme, and he might fit better in Pittsburgh’s 3-4.
Thomas is another third-year defensive lineman who hasn’t missed a game since his rookie season and was part of the San Diego Chargers 12th-ranked rushing defense in 2013.
The Steelers were No. 21 against the run last year, and some minor contributors on defense gone, much will be expected of fourth-year end Cameron Heyward. Heyward was tied with Woodley for second on the team with 5.0 sacks.
Mitchell, along with second-year player Shamarko Thomas, should be a solid tandem at safety with Troy Polamalu under contract for three more years but aging.