There have been two main themes chasing the Pittsburgh Steelers throughout this offseason. One has been improve the pass rush. The other: improve the pass coverage.
The Steelers have tried to address both issues after drafting an outside linebacker in the first round and two cornerbacks in the second and fourth rounds, adding a safety in the seventh round during the 2015 NFL Draft.
The bigger issue for many has been the secondary, despite the fact that pass coverage and pass rushing are intimately intertwined. But I think the secondary could get a boost simply by drawing less flags than they did last season.
As we all know, illegal contact and similar penalties in the secondary were a point of emphasis for the officials last season, and this was reflected in a substantial increase in such penalties during the season, particularly early on. The Steelers were among the teams that appeared to be most susceptible to this.
Those numbers should begin to regress to the mean following last year’s spike, when it presumably goes back to being officiated as it has been traditionally. But beyond a shift in the emphasis of the rules, I do believe that the personnel on the field this season should be able to play more flag-free football.
For starters, two of their most egregious offenders from last season are now out of the picture. In his 717 snaps last year, for example, safety Troy Polamalu drew seven flags, or close to one flag every 100 snaps. Cornerback Ike Taylor played less than 300 snaps, but still managed to draw four flags.
Cortez Allen was by far the worst offender in the secondary, having been flagged nine times in less than 500 snaps, but I have confidence that if he is even playing well enough to be starting, then he will be doing so without drawing a penalty about once every 50 snaps.
Allen was probably one of the biggest victims of the rules emphasis, being flagged a number of times early on for illegal contact and defensive holding as he was hindered by an undisclosed knee injury that may have attributed to his tendency to be more handsy than was permitted.
Should he fail to do so, however, cornerbacks William Gay and Antwon Blake should be able to play a cleaner game. Gay in particular was flagged just once in nearly 900 snaps, while Blake’s nearly 300 snaps registered only two flags in his first significant playing time.
As for safety Mike Mitchell, who was one of only three defenders to approach 1000 snaps, he drew only four flags all year, and if my memory is correct, only two of them were the result of typical secondary penalties.
The outlier here is of course Shamarko Thomas, who has no meaningful playing time in his career as of yet at the safety position. Time will tell what the former collegiate who earned the nickname ‘Headache’ will do at the NFL level in terms of disciplined, error-free football, but one small step in an overall improvement of the secondary will come in the form of his ability to keep the flags off the field.