All of the discussion in recent years in Pittsburgh seems to center around the team’s great offensive talent. The talk of the great Steelers’ defenses of the past such as the Steel Curtain and the more recent Troy Polamalu/Joey Porter-led units are a distant memory. The secondary, in particular, has been a real troublesome spot for the team since guys like Mel Blount and Rod Woodson were locking opponents down.
This unit has been overshadowed and has underperformed for far too long. The Steelers will be looking for some young players to step up this season. They will have to do it quickly, as the ever-improving AFC North is up for grabs. Below, I’ll analyze the 2019 Steelers’ secondary and detail how the young guys will need to come of age quickly — that or risk the team being left behind in the hunt for another division crown.
The unit seems broken, but how does it get fixed?
Pittsburgh has spent vast resources to try and fix the longstanding issue in the secondary but to no avail. They have gone the route of re-signing their guys to high-priced deals, such as Ike Taylor, and also brought in big free agent names like Morgan Burnett and Joe Haden. The Steelers have also spent many first, and second-day draft picks on guys like Bryant McFadden, Artie Burns, and Ricardo Colclough to name a few. As of this writing, they’ll be hoping the answers are already on the roster.
First, the team will be looking to some current starters to improve on their play from last season, or those players will become replaceable. A big question is free safety Sean Davis, who I have acknowledged before. He will need to settle into his role at free safety and make more consistent game-changing plays. The problem, however, is that the team is not developing young talent, and there is no progression. Free agent acquisitions like Joe Haden and Mike Mitchell have routinely outplayed young draft picks like Burns and Davis.
The Steelers needs to do a better job of finding players who fit their system and nurturing that talent into consistent production. The ability is there with young guys, like 2018 first-rounder Terrell Edmunds, and high picks like Davis and newcomer Justin Layne. The team is counting on these guys to mature fast and make plays early as the Steelers look to get back into the playoffs.
The starters and depth of this group
The expected starters in the Steelers’ secondary include Haden, Davis, free agent addition Steven Nelson, and the sophomore Edmunds. Nelson was also listed as one of my players on the hot seat in 2019. He is another in a long line of free agents brought from outside the organization to stop the bleeding of this unit. The former Chief has been a serviceable starter in this league for the last three years. Nelson even carries some much-need playoff experience. He will provide a stable if unspectacular presence on the outside where guys like Burns, Coty Sensabaugh, and others have failed.
With the number of spread offenses in the NFL today, the slot corner can also be considered a starting position on defense. And Mike Hilton returns to stabilize this position for the Steelers. Hilton has been a revelation for the team and one of the better players at this position since he entered the league in 2016. He was an undrafted free agent, who Pittsburgh added to the practice squad after being cut from the Jacksonville Jaguars and New England Patriots. His veteran presence has been one of the few positives for this unit, along with Haden. Hilton was recently asked about some of the offseason additions to the defense and seemed to like the changes.
Along with the addition of Nelson, the Steelers brought in former Michigan State corner Justin Layne in the 3rd round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Layne is a long prospect that will compete with Nelson as mentioned above. He profiles as a long-term starter with upside at the outside corner position. And speaking of potential, the safety positions seem to be stocked with talent in Pittsburgh. Davis’ struggles have been documented, but second-year player Edmunds appears to be a star in the making. Edmunds is a former first-rounder and started 15 games as a rookie in 2018. He contributed a combined total of 78 tackles with four pass deflections, a sack, and two forced turnovers.
The sooner, the better
The veteran presence, combined with the talented youngsters this team has assembled gives the unit some hope for 2019 and beyond. It will be tough, though. The AFC North continues to improve by leaps and bounds, and that includes the passing games. The Browns added star receiver Odell Beckham while the Ravens drafted Oklahoma speedster Marquise Brown in the first round of the Draft. The Bengals will also be getting A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert back from injury this season, along with a new offense.
Pittsburgh will depend heavily on their new and improved secondary to keep them competitive within the division and get them back among the elite of the AFC. With the improvements to the division mentioned above, the young players will need to grow up quickly. The offense will once again be a tremendous strength of this team, so the defense will need to hold their own against some of the top offensive units that oppose Pittsburgh this season.
Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield were newcomers to the division in 2018, and they made a huge mark right away. But it’s not all about the offenses in the AFC North. The Ravens also added safety Earl Thomas to their secondary, which threatens to be one of the better groups in football. If the Steelers want to emulate the potential greatness of the Raven’s secondary, theirs will need to capitalize on their talent and depth. If Haden and Edmunds can lead this group by example, their running mates should follow suit accordingly.
Scott Gorman is a writer for PFN covering the Pittsburgh Steelers. You can follow him @sgormanPFN on Twitter.