The Pittsburgh Steelers already knew entering this season that there was a lot of uncertainty concerning their secondary, which saw the retirement of two starters over the course of the offseason, though neither were anticipated to return for the 2015 regardless of their contract status.
But they likely were not expecting to have two of their top four cornerbacks already missing practice heading into the second game of the season, which leaves them vulnerable in terms of who to play in their sub-packages, as well as overall depth.
Cortez Allen, who was slated to be a starter prior to the season, but was bumped down to the nickel role when the regular season opener took place, was a limited participant in practice yesterday with a linger knee issue, for which he missed the practice session on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Brandon Boykin, whom the Steelers acquired via trade early on in training camp, was limited in his work on Wednesday with a groin injury, and missed all of yesterday’s practice. Boykin did not log a single snap on defense in the season opener.
The Steelers elected to keep only five cornerbacks on the 53-man roster, and they may be down to two by the end of the week if Boykin and Allen remain practicing on only a limited basis. Most concerning is the fact that their fifth cornerback, which may be their third come Sunday, has very limited familiarity with the defense.
In order to get down from their 75-man offseason roster to 53, the Steelers signed free agent cornerback Ross Cockrell, and, the following day, released rookie cornerback Doran Grant. Cockrell is a second-year former fourth-round draft pick that the team expressed interest in during draft time in 2014.
But he has such limited exposure to the defense in just two weeks that it would be asking quite a lot for him to be a significant contributor on the defensive side of the ball in such a short amount of time.
Fortunately, the Steelers will likely not have to use their nickel defense much against their next opponent, the 49ers, as their offense is heavily predicated on running the ball with two and three tight ends on the field at a time.
The 49ers get more work out of their second tight end than they do their third wide receiver. That would be like Matt Spaeth playing more snaps than Martavis Bryant once he returns from his suspension.
If the Steelers do head into the game without Boykin and Allen, and they do go to sub-packages, they may instead utilize a heavy nickel look with a third safety rather than a third cornerback. The defense got work out of four different safeties during the season opener.
In truth, if there was a week for the Steelers to be low on cornerbacks, this may be one of their better opportunities to deal with a short-handed secondary. Even if one or both are healthy, don’t be surprised to see a heavy nickel look out there from time to time.