The Pittsburgh Steelers are undoubtedly one of the best teams in the National Football League. With a high powered offense anchored by the “Killer B’s”, the Steelers find themselves year in and year out as legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Why, you might ask, have they not won one since 2008 you might ask? Defense.
Options to Help a Struggling Steelers Secondary
While offense might fill the stands, defense wins championships. The Steelers have steered away from their legendary defensive ways and have paid the price for it. Getting absolutely carved up by Tom Brady at the end of last year, the team’s defense took strides this year. Boasting a respectable front seven, made up of high caliber players like Stephon Tuitt, Ryan Shazier, and All-Pro Cameron Heyward, the Steelers pass rush was never in doubt as they led the NFL in sacks this year. Losing Shazier to a horrific injury was obviously felt, but the front seven was still able to maintain high-level play. A talented, but inexperienced, secondary was at the center of the struggles. In an attempt to fix this, the front office signed veteran cornerback Joe Haden in the offseason, and paired him next to former first round pick Artie Burns.
Mike Hilton also had success in 2017, but he is primarily a pass rusher in the Steelers funky blitz packages. This look like it had paid its dividends, as at one point the Steelers were one of the best pass defenses in football. However, Haden went down with an injury and the Steelers’ pass defense transitioned from one of the best in the league to just an average level secondary. Haden did eventually return but nothing seemed to change. The secondary got exposed by Blake Bortles in the divisional round and the Steelers did not live up to the expectations.
How To Fix Their Issues
First things first, I don’t think that this secondary is awful. Are they good enough to win a Super Bowl? No, and being that the expectation for this team each year is to compete for one, something has to change. To me, Artie Burns has the potential to be a true number one cornerback on a good team someday. The Steelers agree with me, as they spent a first round pick on Burns and will give him all the opportunities possible so that he can develop into the corner they drafted him to be. According to Pro Football Focus, Burns graded out as the 44th best cornerback in 2017, with an overall grade of 80.8, classifying him as an above average player for their standards. His running mate Joe Haden was the 51st best cornerback, with an overall grade of 79.2, making him an average player according to their standards.
Both Burns and Haden were productive in 2017 and while they struggled at time, were not the main issue of the secondary problems the Steelers endured. Mike Mitchell and Sean Davis, however, were at the heart of the problem. Mitchell, the 62nd best safety in the NFL according to PFF, and Davis, the 86th best safety in the NFL according to PFF, did not play well at all for Pittsburgh. Although Mitchell is a hard hitter, he has never been good in coverage and found it difficult to stay on the field. The 30 year old struggled to tackle in the open field as well, as we saw when Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette absolutely destroyed him in a game at Heinz Field.
On the contrary, Sean Davis was healthy for the majority of the season and just played extremely poor. Davis missed a ton of tackles, struggled in coverage, and had little success in the pass rush, something that Steelers safeties of the past have been very successful in (just ask Troy Polamalu). The only upside with Davis is that he showed promise his rookie year and is still only 24 with plenty of time to develop. That being said, him and Mitchell might find themselves as rotational guys in 2018.
How To Improve the Secondary
One option for them would be via the draft. In their last five drafts, the Steelers have selected a defensive player in the first round and you should fully expect for them to do the same this year. With the 28th pick in the draft, Pittsburgh could look to address cornerback or safety help in the first round, but are expected to draft Ryan Shazier‘s potential replacement due to the fact that this class is extremely loaded at the cornerback position. If the Steelers do go after a defensive back in the first round, it would certainly be a cornerback like Carlton Davis (Auburn) or Isaiah Oliver (Colorado) who are extremely similar prospects.
Both Davis and Oliver are tall, lanky defensive backs that fit the mold of NFL cornerbacks in today’s league. They are both projected to run similar 40 yard dash times, weigh the same, and excel in man coverage. Davis is the better overall prospect, as he jams receivers off the line better than Oliver and has better footwork. An addition like this would either earn a rotational role or potentially force Joe Haden to only play in certain packages.
Of course, Pittsburgh could elect to pass on a defensive back in the first round and address the position later on in the draft. Jaire Alexander (Louisville) was once considered by some to be the best cornerback in the nation. Had it not been for a knee injury and a broken hand that sidelined him for six games, Alexander would have been almost a guaranteed first round pick. He has great speed complimented with phenomenal ball skills and true physicality. Alexander could add some true playmaking ability to the Steelers secondary. Donte Jackson (LSU) should also be on the Steelers radar, as he is an elite athlete that has blazing speed and good cover skills. While he is undersized, Pittsburgh has not shied away from smaller corners (Mike Hilton) that can make plays.
Both Alexander and Jackson can play either the slot or on the outside, making them more versatile than other cornerbacks in this absolutely loaded draft class. Moving on to the safeties, the Steelers could look at possibly taking Ronnie Harrison (Alabama) in the first round. Harrison is basically an upgraded, younger version of Mike Mitchell. He is a big hitter that plays well in zone coverage and can also have an impact in the pass rush.
If they elect to pass on him and Kyzir White (West Virginia) falls into their lap in the second round, expect him to be the pick. White has an NFL ready body, standing at 6’2″ and 215 pounds. White fits the mold of a Steelers safety perfectly, as he excelled in the pass rush for the Mountaineers last season and is a very physical, big hitter. He can stop the run well and has success in both man and zone coverages. Many scouts are very high on White and expect him to be a day one starter in the NFL. The additions of Harrison or White would almost certainly mean that Mike Mitchell‘s time as a starter in Pittsburgh has come to an end, as both would just seem to be better fits then him right now.
The Steelers could also look to the free agency pool in order to fix their secondary problems. While this is less likely than addressing their needs through the draft since Pittsburgh does not have a lot of wiggle room in terms of the salary cap and this free agency class is quite week at the cornerback position, it is still possible that they sign a secondary piece this offseason. High priced cornerbacks Trumaine Johnson and Malcolm Butler are out of the question, but Pittsburgh may look to add a smaller name that can still have an impact on their situation.
One name that should be on their radar is Kyle Fuller. The former Chicago Bears cornerback will be an unrestricted free agent this season and had a very solid 2017 season. Still only 25 years old, Fuller was PFF’s 22nd best cornerback earning a grade of 84.3 and classifying him as an above average player at his position. Fuller could potentially start over Joe Haden or play in the slot, but adding him would have a positive impact on the Steelers situation.
Bills cornerback E.J. Gaines could be another player Pittsburgh inquires on. Coming over from the Rams in the Sammy Watkins trade, Gaines was a project type player whose future was unsure. He balled out in 2017, earning PFF 13th best corner and an overall grade of 86.6, classifying him as a high quality cornerback according to their standards. Gaines, like Fuller, is athletic and versatile enough to play both the slot and the outside. The safety position is certainly something the Steelers will look more seriously at. This season, the safety class is stronger than the cornerback class and is just more of a position of need for the Steelers.
While Lamarcus Joyner, Kenny Vaccaro, Eric Reid, and Morgan Burnett would all be phenomenal additions, I don’t think Pittsburgh has the money to give these players the contracts that they deserve. A player like Tyvon Branch from the Arizona Cardinals is someone that I think the Steelers could afford and should take a look at. A veteran, Branch balled out in 2017 earning a PFF grade of 88.5 and was one of the top safeties in 2017 before going down with an injury. He would command somewhere in the range of $5 million per season, but is an immediate upgrade over both Mitchell and Davis.
Other than Branch, I don’t think Pittsburgh will, or should, target anyone else simply because they don’t have the cap space to afford a high caliber safety in free agency. This is the reason why the Steelers should elect to rebuild their defense through the draft, rather than by signing players.
Stick With 2017’s Group
There’s also the slight possibility that the Mike Tomlin and the coaching staff elects to just roll with what they have. The team still believes that Artie Burns could become a productive number one cornerback in the NFL someday. Joe Haden proved that he still had something left in the tank before going down with an injury. The problem clearly lies with the safety play, although there is hope that Mitchell returns to his former self and Sean Davis develops into something since he is still very young. However, ridicule from ownership and the fan base will be high if the Steelers do not make any moves to improve their secondary play, as consistently getting exposed by average level quarterbacks won’t get the team very far come the playoffs.
The Steelers front office is very intelligent and is highly regarded as one of the best in the entire NFL. They know that they have to improve their secondary and will surely do their best to address the situation. If this problem can be fixed, the Steelers are on track to being legitimate Super Bowl contenders in 2018.
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