In this preview, we’re wrapping up looking at the Steelers defense. We’ve looked at the front-seven, which in my opinion, is at least top-5 in the NFL. However, the final four positions on the Steelers’ defense is not quite as strong. It’s been flat out atrocious at times. They’ve had short little moments where they looked great. It’s definitely the Achilles’ heel of the team. Some say it’s because of the lack of a shutdown corner. Or because they’ve paid more attention to other positions in the draft when they should’ve drafted cornerbacks or safeties. Whatever the case may be, the secondary is still a question mark. Let’s take a look at the projected starters and break this down:
CB William Gay
FS Mike Mitchell
SS Robert Golden
CB Ross Cockrell
It’s interesting. The pessimist can look at the secondary and think, “Well, our offense is going to have to score 50 points a game because we can’t stop the other team from going up and down the field on us.” On the contrary, the optimist may say, “Just be patient. This group will be great in a few years.” Personally, I’m kind of in the middle. I’m generally an optimist. I could see how this group could end up being middle of the pack, but I could also see how they could finish dead last against the pass. William Gay is their best cornerback. That’s not good. No knock on Gay, who’s play has gone unnoticed by too many. He’s one short on career pick-6’s as Rod Woodson in Steelers’ history (you may have heard of him). William Gay isn’t a number one corner though. If he were on a team that had even a semi-deep secondary, he’d more than likely be the number two. The Steelers depth at corner, at least in terms of those with any legit NFL experience, is slim-to-none. Ross Cockrell is the number two corner, who was surprisingly decent last year. His inexperience showed though by getting torched a few times, but for his first year getting that kind of playing time, it gives reason for optimism. Mike Mitchell. He was signed out of free agency two years ago as the replacement for Ryan Clark. Clark was a steady free safety who could lay the boom down on receivers going over the middle. Mitchell was expected to bring something similar. His first year with Pittsburgh was very forgettable. He didn’t get credit for a “pass defended” until the season was nearly over. He was slow. He was wasted money on the roster in my opinion. He was also battling a groin injury all season and played through it. Mitchell was healthy last year and his play drastically improved. He led the team in interceptions and was third on the team in tackles. If he stays healthy, he’s the best player in the secondary. Robert Golden is getting his first crack at a starting job on the secondary. He’s been the special teams captain and played in nickel or dime packages. I expect inconsistency from him. He knows the system and his teammates, but will he be able to execute? That remains to be seen. He’s the biggest question mark in the bunch.
The depth behind these four is very interesting. The Steelers have started to pay much more attention to the secondary in the draft. They drafted cornerbacks Senquez Golson and Doran Grant in the second and fourth rounds in 2015, respectively. This year, they drafted cornerback Artie Burns in the first round, and safety (or cornerback) Sean Davis in the second round. Golson sat out last year with an injury, and has already suffered another injury this year that will keep him out for an extended period of time. Grant has shown some things in preseason, but is not ready for a starting job. Burns and Davis both have high ceilings. I think Davis is more polished than Burns and could get a starting job before Burns, but I think Burns’ ceiling is higher. Burns has insane raw talent, but it has to be honed and trained for the NFL game. It will be an adjustment and it will take time. Patience is key with these young players. It was the same for Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Ryan Shazier, but look how they’ve progressed. These young guys can be very good, but more than likely, not this year. This year will be crucial for their development though. Expect to see Grant, Burns, and Davis on special teams and in nickel and dime packages. One guy I’m not high on is Shamarko Thomas. He’s been given opportunities, and hasn’t delivered. He was drafted in the fourth round in 2013, and could’ve possibly been Troy Polamalu’s successor at strong safety. He just hasn’t performed. He’s battled injuries, but even when healthy, he hasn’t given reason to give him that starting job. This year is the year for him to prove something, if he has it. I personally think Sean Davis could win a starting role, either at strong safety or corner, before the year is over. Injuries happen, and he has the talent and football IQ to gain Tomlin and Butler’s trust.
This group could be really good in a couple years, where Burns and Davis are starters. But this year, it will be another year where the continually struggle. They’ll have good games, and I think it’ll be more frequent. The secondary automatically improves if the front seven can wreak havoc for the quarterback, which I believe they’ll do. But for teams like New England that get rid of the ball very quickly, the Steelers will struggle mightily. There’s not enough depth with NFL experience. Youth is great to have, but it’ll be another year of learning for the young guys in the secondary. Prepare yourselves for some games that the opposing team throws all over the field. It’s gonna happen. However, I like the direction they’re going. It gives reason for optimism. Realistically, all the secondary has to do is be average as long as the offense stays healthy. 2014 was proof of that. 2015 is proof of what happens when the offense gets banged up. Only time will tell what 2016 will hold.
Preseason Grade: C-