During the 2015 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers added a pair of short cornerbacks to a group of players that is already fairly height-deprived outside of Cortez Allen, who at 6’1” is the only one in the group that exceeds a stature of six feet.
In the second round, the Steelers drafted Senquez Golson, a ballhawking cornerback who stands at just a sliver over 5’8.5” and who chose to stand on his 33.5” Combine vertical at his Pro Day performance.
With their first day-three selection, Pittsburgh went double-dipping with Doran Grant, who at a little over 5’10” joins William Gay in height, adding to a stable of players that also includes the 5’9” Antwon Blake and who other non-contributors who are also under six feet tall.
Whether or not there will be any height contributing in the secondary will depend on the way Allen rebounds from his disastrous 2014 season, of course, which saw him demoted from the starting lineup and then benched from the defense altogether before winding up on injured reserve.
It’s entirely possible, then, that the top four cornerbacks at some point this season will be Gay, Golson, Blake, and Grant, all of whom are 5’10” or shorter, which, as has been the narrative since the draft, and will continue to be, suggests that the secondary will naturally struggle against taller wide receivers in the league.
The Steelers were blessed with the 6’2” Ike Taylor for many years, who was able to cover the opposing offense’s best receiver, no matter what height, while in his prime. But I do believe that the prominence of big receivers is becoming an overexaggerated narrative at this point, and completely ignores other issues.
Typically, shorter cornerbacks and taller cornerbacks are prone to display disparate strengths and weaknesses. Taller cornerbacks are often not as reactive and agile, while the shorter cornerbacks are more likely to be out-muscled.
But the Steelers typically employ much more zone than press man coverage, so being out-muscled isn’t as great of a concern. And the fact of the matter is that those short, quick, agile wide receivers and running backs need to be covered, too.
Here is just a sampling of some of the players that the Steelers will need to defend on their schedule this season: Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola on opening day; Tavon Austin in Week Three; John Brown and Andre Ellington in Week Five. There’s Travis Benjamin and T.Y. Hilton awaiting later on in the year, not to mention Emmanuel Sanders among plenty of others.
Lest we forget, the Steelers drafted inside linebacker Ryan Shazier last year to stay on the field on third and long. He’s faster than all of their cornerbacks, with the possible exception of Blake, and he has the size to cover tight ends, as does Lawrence Timmons.
This is a part of their plan in defending the passing game going forward. It’s why they’ve added the pieces that are now in place. But these short cornerbacks will still be covering whoever is lined up across from them, even if they’re 6’5”. And yes, they’ll have some balls caught over their head, as general manager Kevin Colbert acknowledged. But that happens to every cornerback Golson and Grant and Blake and Gay will win their share of battles as well.