If there was a turning point in the makeover of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ secondary it came three years ago when the team signed free agent cornerback Joe Haden after he was jettisoned by the Cleveland Browns. In fact, Haden himself recently celebrated the 3-year anniversary of the day he was “CUT by the Browns!” with a tweet reminding us that the “Steelers Organization gets it!”
Today you can argue that the makeover is complete, with the Steelers placing three—that’s right three!— cornerbacks among Pro Football Focus’ list of the Top 25 CBs in the NFL entering the 2020 season.
The Steelers are one of two teams with three cornerbacks on the list, the other being the Los Angeles Chargers, who have Casey Hayward Jr. at #3, Chris Harris Jr. at #6 and Desmond King II at #14.
Steven Nelson, Joe Haden and Mike Hilton
The three Steelers cornerbacks in question are: Steven Nelson at #15, Joe Haden at #19 and slot corner Mike Hilton at #25.
Author Sam Monson notes that “Steven Nelson produced a breakout 2019 campaign in Pittsburgh … [as he] allowed only 51.5 % of passes thrown his way to be caught and didn’t surrender 100 receiving yards in any single game last year.”
As for Haden, PFF notes that “He had 10 pass breakups and five interceptions while allowing just 53.2% of the passes thrown his way to be caught in 2019. Over the past two years, he has been beaten for just 10.3 yards per catch. He has also been penalized fewer than six times for five straight seasons with only three coming in 2019.”
Finally, PFF describes Hilton as “one of the best slot corners in the league…. [He] may be a small step behind the best slot defenders in the league, but only Desmond King and Nickell Robey-Coleman [Philadelphia Eagles] have a higher PFF grade when lined up there over the past three seasons.”
The team even has depth at the cornerback position with a promising second-year man in Justin Layne and an intriguing rookie undrafted free agent in James Pierre.
Notably, it’s the cornerbacks who account for the lion’s share of the reason why Monson rates the Pittsburgh secondary as fourth-best in the NFL. PFF is somewhat less enthused about the team’s safeties, naming Terrell Edmunds to its all-average team, and fretting about whether Minkah Fitzpatrick will be able to play at a consistently high enough level to warrant the hype that surrounds him.
Other AFC North Cornerbacks on PFF’s List
There are four other cornerbacks from the AFC North on PFF’s list, and two are rated more highly than any of Pittsburgh’s cornerbacks, those being Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters of the Baltimore Ravens, at #8 and #9, respectively.
Denzel Ward of the Cleveland Browns is at #16 and William Jackson III of the Cincinnati Bengals is #24.
The #1 rated cornerback on the list is Stephon Gilmore of the New England Patriots, who is described as a “shutdown corner,” with by Richard Sherman, Casey Hayward Jr., Jaylen Ramsey and Marshon Lattimore rounding out the top five.
“Gilmore’s coverage numbers in the toughest of situations—single coverage—are simply peerless,” notes Monson.
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