There are many reasons for optimism in 2017 for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The secondary however, is not one of them. The offense should be better than ever with the return of Martavis Bryant, to go along with what might be the best line in the NFL. There’s even reason to be excited on defense where the Steelers may have finally solved their pass rushing issues. Bud Dupree seems poised for a breakout season, and combined with 1st round pick TJ Watt they will represent the best hope for improvement in years. Special teams are solid heading into the new season as well. Jordan Berry and Chris Boswell are probably the best kicking tandem Pittsburgh has had in well……..ever?
If all this has gotten you thinking Super Bowl #7 is within the Steelers grasp, hold on just one second. The Achilles Heel on this team may ultimately cost them a chance at a title. This secondary is just not good enough right now. Badly in need of a standout veteran, the Steelers opted instead to add a third round pick and a fringe starter in Coty Sensabaugh. Cornerback is where the team really could struggle. Artie Burns is a first round pick with a lot of raw talent, but he needs at least another year to develop before he can be considered a number one corner in this league. Ross Cockrell optimizes the phrase ” solid but not spectacular”. He’s really a solid backup playing as a starter. What’s left after those two is a grab bag of who knows what. Free agent Coty Sensabaugh is just a depth guy, and William Gay is on the downside to be kind. Nobody knows what to expect from Senquez Golson at this point having missed two entire seasons due to injury. There’s already been some buzz about him being cut before training camp has even started. To wrap up this group you have the two players selected in this past year’s draft. Third round pick Cam Sutton reportedly impressed during OTA’s. Remember though, this is a player who was thought to be a sure-fire first round pick had he come out the previous year. His play dipped in his final college campaign leading him to drop to a late second round pick. Fifth round pick Brian Allen has exciting size/speed numbers, but he’s a long shot to even make the final 53 man roster. Add this all together and you have an average group at best unless youngsters Burns and Sutton surprise everyone and outplay what their age would suggest.
The Steelers starting safeties are good, bordering on very good. Mike Mitchell is a solid veteran who is known for his hard-hitting style. He has his flaws though, missing tackles while trying to make those big hits being the primary one. He is a veteran leader, and does bring a lot to the table on and off the field. Sean Davis is the one to be the most amped up about in the entire secondary. His rookie season was very impressive, and looks every bit the future Pro-Bowler. Let’s all cross our fingers here because the depth at this position isn’t very good at all. Robert Golden was exposed for exactly what he is, a special teams player. The same goes for Jordan Dangerfield, an above average special teamer and that’s all. Titans cast off Daimion Stafford was brought in at the end of free agency and will probably win a backup job, further proving the lack of depth.
Now for the really scary part. It seems very likely the Steelers are about to change philosophies from a zone scheme to man to man coverage. Two questions immediately come to mind. Do they have the personnel at corner, and is Keith Butler the right coach to implement this? At first glance, the only corner really suited for man to man coverage is Artie Burns. Ross Cockrell and William Gay are certainly not, and would be rendered almost useless in that type os system. That would leave the team leaning heavily on rookies Sutton, Allen, and (gulp) Senquez Golson. Now take into consideration that Keith Butler hasn’t used a man to man system in all his years in Pittsburgh, either as the defensive coordinator or under the tutelage of Dick Lebeau. Even worse is the talk of pattern matching, a zone and man coverage hybrid. One of the glaring concerns over the Keith Butler era is the often confused and out-of-place positioning by his players. Throw in a potentially even more complex pattern matching system, and whoa the growing pains would be immense.
There’s no question this team needs to change philosophies on defense. The old Dick Lebeau zones got exposed badly by the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game. It’s essentially a race now for the Steelers to get this new system and young players up and running before the Ben Roethlisberer championship window closes. Building slowly through the draft has always worked in the past, and is likely to work out now. Unfortunately it may take too long to get the secondary where it needs to be in time. Especially if Big Ben follows through on his repeated hints at retirement.