This is where the Steelers defense gets interesting, and a bit scary. It was clear that the biggest weakness of the team last season was the secondary. Pittsburgh ranked 30th in pass defense, giving up an average of 272 yards per game. The Steelers used their first two draft choices to help start rebuilding the defense in this area. Meanwhile, veterans Will Allen, Brandon Boykin, and Antwon Blake were all allowed to leave via free agency. The secondary will have a much different look with some inexperienced players in key roles.
Safety Mike Mitchell will be one of the few veterans to start for Pittsburgh’s secondary this season. Mitchell is coming off his best year as a Steeler, and will be the key to helping a young secondary through what is sure to be some growing pains. The best guess as to who plays along side him at safety seems to be Robert Golden. Being primarily a special team ace, Golden has never started at safety in the NFL. Towards the end of last season and especially the playoffs, Golden got increased playing time as a third safety in the Steelers nickel defense. He performed well in that role, showing signs he might have what it takes be a full time starter. Second round pick Sean Davis will push for a starting job all season. Davis is an impressive athlete with all the skills to be a impact player in years to come. Then there’s Shamarko Thomas………?? We have been waiting a long time for Thomas to become a starting safety on this team, and it’s not likely to ever happen at this point. Nobody questions his physical skills, we have to conclude at this point that he’s been unable to grasp the defensive schemes. Any playing time Thomas gets will be on special teams barring injuries.
Cornerback is even more uncertain for the Steelers this season. Veteran William Gay will be the only sure thing for this group. After Gay, no corner on the roster has even a full year of experience in the NFL. Ross Cockrell will be the corner starting opposite Gay when the season opens at Washington. The third year corner has a total of seven starts in his career, all coming last season with Pittsburgh. After Cockrell, the Steelers have a pair of high draft picks who’ve never played a down. Senquez Golson missed the entire 2015 season with an injury. His lack of size is a concern, but he has the speed and competitiveness to be very good. This years first round pick Artie Burns is a big, fast, corner and is unlike anything the Steelers have at corner. Burns will compete with Cockrell for the starting corner job, while Golson should see plenty of action as the slot corner. The lack of experience here is a major concern. This group will undoubtedly take it’s lumps early on. The Steelers will have to weather this and hope the young players improve towards the end of the campaign.
All in all there is more reason for optimism for the Steelers secondary now then there has been in some time. Pittsburgh has invested heavily in the secondary through the draft over the past two years. Burns, Golson, and Davis are all exceptional athletes who should get better as they get more plating time. In coming years the secondary could become the strength of the team, and not just something Pittsburgh hopes to get by with.