NFL Draft 2013: Arthur Brown Could Continue the Evolution of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Defense

Arthur Brown could be the next great Steelers linebacker.

In two days, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will step towards the podium at Radio City Music Hall in New York to announce that the Pittsburgh Steelers will draft….

And that is where the story ends for now.

Only twice since 2004 have the Pittsburgh Steelers selected as high in the draft as they will this year. The first time they came away with a young quarterback who would quickly lead his team to two Super Bowl championships, Ben Roethlisberger. The second time they would land one of their current defensive leaders n Lawrence Timmons. The Steelers will pick 17th, the highest they have picked since they took Maurkice Pouncey 18th overall in 2010.

Steelers’ general manager Kevin Colbert said at a recent press conference, “I doubt that we move up. I think the more picks we have the better, in this draft particularly. But there will be a good player at 17, there’s no question about that.” Colbert didn’t tip his hand in any particular direction, but former Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones believes that he is atop their board, while safeties Jonathan Cyprien or Kenny Vaccaro could be considerations. Tank Carradine’s potential could tempt them also or a defensive lineman.

The best prospect for the Steelers may be inside linebacker Arthur Brown. Brown has been a favorite of the online scout community for some time, but most of the mainstream media is just beginning to recognize his potential as a top 20 pick. A product of Kansas, most of the skepticism surrounding Brown’s NFL projection is sourced from his size. Brown is just 6′ and 240 points. He has the frame to add bulk, but will definitely be under pressure to do so on the next level.His need to bulk up shouldn’t overwhelm the positives of his overall abilities.

According to esteemed draft analyst Eric Stoner, Brown “has proven to be one of the most athletic linebackers in college football over the last two years—possessing true sideline-to-sideline range…[his] size limits his overall stack-and-shed power when taking on offensive linemen head up, but he plays so fast and is so slippery that he usually beats them to the spot so they cannot ever get a clean shot on him. He actually has surprising strength both in terms of his tackling inside and in defeating blocks against fullbacks and tight ends.”

Stoner projects Brown as best fit in a 4-3 weak-side linebacker, but he also notes that he could “project to a weak inside linebacker for some 3-4 teams, as he is a very comparable player in size and skill to NaVorro Bowman.”Brown isn’t a typical fit for the Steelers’ scheme as it has stood under Dick LeBeau, but recent signs have pointed to the unit undergoing an evolution.

Last year, the Steelers actually drafted a linebacker of similar style to Brown in the third round. Sean Spence came out of Miami expecting to land with a 4-3 team as a weak-side linebacker. However, the Steelers took him with the 86th overall choice. Spence proceeded to electrify everyone at off-season workouts. On a defense that typically didn’t allow for rookies to even be prominent role players, Spence was making a strong initial impression that had some thinking that he could be a day one starter alongside Lawrence Timmons.

Timmons and Spence together would have given the Steelers two very athletic inside linebackers who would add much needed flexibility to the middle of the field. However, a horrifying knee injury ended his rookie season before it began and he is no certainty to be available for this coming season. Although they lost that flexiblity at the linebacker spot when they were forced to play Larry Foote in his place, evolution in the secondary afforded them a more dynamic group of flexible coverage defenders.

Slowly moving away from the Deshea Townsend, Bryant McFadden and William Gay types as starting outside cornerbacks, allowed the Steelers to draft players such as Cortez Allen, Keenan Lewis and Curtis Brown. Allen, Lewis and Brown are all much bigger cornerbacks who the Steelers used in press man coverage. Press man coverage was something the Steelers played very little of under LeBeau before those players arrived. That adjustment resulted in LeBeau using less base formations and somewhat moving away from prioritizing run-stopping in favor of being better against the pass.

That new approach and those adjustments allowed LeBeau’s defense to rank first against the pass in each of the past two seasons.

What direction the Steelers go in in the draft could tell us more about the immediate future of Spence, but it also would be presumptuous to make a decision either way without further comment from the organization itself. Because Mike Tomlin comes from a 4-3 background, there have always been suspicions that the Steelers would incorporate more aspects of that formation in their defense under LeBeau or even transition to it completely as LeBeau undergoes the final stretch of his career.

Becaue LeBeau has shown a willingness to adjust his approach lately, any Brown addition would open up the potential for the Steelers to use three linebacker sets this coming year even if only in nickel situations. With Arthur Brown at weak-side linebacker, Lawrence Timmons at strong-side linebacker and Larry Foote in the middle, the Steelers could shift their personnel around to create a better balance against offenses that try to create mismatches presnap.

If Spence is healthy enough to be on the field, then the Steelers could create even more flexibility by playing Spence at weak-side linebacker, keeping Timmons at strong-side linebacker and moving Brown into the middle. With a four man defensive line of Jason Worilds, Steve McLendon, Cameron Heyward and LaMarr Woodley, the Steelers would have a plethora of pass-rushers on the field while not exposing themselves against the run or letting the offense line up an athletic tight end in an instant mismatch.

In a league that is full of offenses trying to stretch defenses in different directions, having athletes at the linebacker position who can cover and get off blocks in the running game are invaluable. Brown’s size may be a problem at times, but the comparison to NaVarro Bowman proves that he can carry out that role on this level if his talent translates.

Brown’s fits in Steelers’ Base Formation

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In their standard 3-4 front, Brown will receive some amount of protection from the Steelers’ front and aggressive safety play. The two circled players are the Steelers’ inside linebackers in a standard 3-4 front. This is one of the rare plays where the offense has left Casey Hampton in a one-on-one situation upfront. Hampton is beating his blocker, but that allows the Patriots’ left guard to get onto the second level.

The Patriots left guard will take one of the Steelers’ linebackers out of the play, Stevenson Sylvester #55, giving Larry Foote, #50, a free run and lanes to get through. Foote is a slow player, while Brown excels at shooting through gaps, using space to avoid blockers and working around stacking blockers with his athleticism and intelligence.

In this scenario, Hampton will be able to take away any cut backs over center, while Brown just needs to avoid the left tackle who is being obstructed by Lawrence Timmons pushing a tight end into him.

This is where most successful NFL offenses are evolving to. Very few teams still carry a thumper who is going to carry the ball 20 times between the guards or even the tackles. Instead the running game looks to put play-makers in space to break off big gains or score touchdowns in an instant. That is the only way running teams can keep up with today’s passing offenses.

That works to Browns’ favor, because he could seamless slide into this role and be a very effective defender.

Ignoring the James Harrison Void

A number of edge-rushers could be available for the Steelers with this pick and the natural reaction is to expect them to take one to replace James Harrison. However, there is depth at the position for the Steelers to find Harrison’s replacement in the second round, while the need to actually take an edge-rusher isn’t that high.

The Steelers have two relatively young and unproven players ready to come into contributing roles at right outside linebacker, Chris Carter and Jason Worilds, while Lawrence Timmons has the ability to move outside in a 3-4 if the team takes Brown.  Furthermore, with LaMarr Woodley on the opposite side, the Steelers already have a player capable of being their primary pass rusher. Even though he hasn’t played to that level as of late.

Timmons as an outside linebacker isn’t an ideal scenario, and it is presuming that both Worilds and Carter prove incapable of filling the role, but if the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens taught us anything this off-season it’s that you don’t need two overwhelmingly impressive pass-rushers coming off the edges. Both the 49ers and Ravens played with one primary pass rusher, Aldon Smith and Paul Kruger/Terrell Suggs, across from an all-around flexible edge defender, Ahmad Brooks and Courtney Upshaw.

Both of those teams have better interior pass rushes than the Steelers have had in recent years, but the elevated statuses of Cameron Heyward and Steve McLendon could change that.

The top pass-rushers that the Steelers could potentially land to fill Harrison’s vacated spot also come with more question-marks than Brown. Jarvis Jones is one of the most polarizing players in the whole class. Tank Carradine has a torn ACL that has prevented him from taking part in almost all of the evaluation process. Bjoern Werner is difficult to project to the Steelers’ system and Barkevious Mingo has next to no chance of finding his way that far into the draft.

With Ben Roethlisberger’s window closing on the Steelers, not to mention the older players still clutching to their starting spots on defense, Arthur Brown offers the Steelers’ a player who can help them compete now, while still being a foundation for growth in the future.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf

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