It wasn’t all that long ago that the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary was one of the weakest units on the team. But now it’s a strength, as evinced by Pro Football Focus dubbing it the fourth-best secondary in the NFL, trailing behind the No. 1 ranked Baltimore Ravens and second- and third-ranked Los Angeles Chargers and New England Patriots.
Yet PFF’s Sam Monson doesn’t exactly paint the team’s cornerbacks and safeties in glowing terms, saying that the Steelers “are cornering the market on solid, if unspectacular, defensive backs.”
It’s clear, though, that Monson and PFF really liked the way CB Steven Nelson performed in 2019, grading him in the 88th percentile at his position and recently describing him as the Steelers’ most underrated player. And “unlike many teams, the Steelers also have strong play in the slot in the form of Mike Hilton,” adds Monson, who “has the third-best PFF coverage grade among slot corners over the past two seasons….”
As for Pittsburgh’s other starting cornerback, Joe Haden, PFF says that in 2019 “Haden had better coverage numbers than Nelson across the board, [but] Nelson’s grade in critical areas was better.”
As for Pittsburgh’s starting safeties, Monson says “Terrell Edmunds has been a disappointment as a shock first-round selection in 2018, but he has at least been consistently average in two years of play.” In fact, he was recently named to PFF’s ‘All-Average Team’ (along with center Maurkice Pouncey). “Edmunds may never justify the Steelers’ reach in that draft, but he doesn’t look like he will be a problem player in a good secondary,” advises Monson.
As for Minkah Fitzpatrick, PFF admits that Fitzpatrick showed the ability to be a “true playmaker” after coming to the Steelers in a mid-season trade with the Miami Dolphins. But Monson adds a caveat, saying that much of the hype around him was generated in a three-game stretch in which he had four interceptions. “He still needs to show he can be a consistently dominant force,” concludes Monson.
The Impact of COVID- 19 on Pittsburgh’s Secondary
In the meantime, it’s worth noting that Pittsburgh’s secondary has suffered a few setbacks at the hands of COVID- 19, with cornerback Justin Layne and defensive back Arrion Springs both added to the NFL’s Reserve/COVID- 19 list during the course of this week. The temporary loss of Layne is a blow, as Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is expecting him to take a big step forward in his second NFL season, having talked about him in glowing terms earlier in the offseason.
This past Thursday Pittsburgh made a move to shore up the depth in its defensive backfield, signing free-agent safety Curtis Riley, who entered the NFL with the Tennessee Titans but has since played for both the Raiders and New York Giants.
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