The Pittsburgh Steelers may well be entering a sticky situation on Sunday, as they are looking at playing a safety making the first start of his NFL career against an explosive offense that thrives on going vertical.
If Will Allen is not able to go—and it doesn’t look like it—fourth-year safety Robert Golden will be in the starting lineup after leapfrogging Shamarko Thomas, who failed to provide the coaches with a sense of comfort in his above the neck play.
We got a preview of that on Monday night when Golden logged 68 of 76 defensive snaps in replacing Allen, who left the game early with an ankle injury, with decidedly mixed results.
Early in the second quarter, with the Chargers facing a second and 21 after a holding penalty, Philip Rivers checked down to his back over the middle. Golden actually initially did his job in forcing the back into the middle of field, into the strength of the coverage, but when he went in for the tackle, he showed a complete lack of fundamentals, not even using his arms at all to make any attempt to wrap up. Had he been the only defender on the play, the back would have continued on upfield.
Golden did come back on the Chargers’ next series to show proper tackling form against Melvin Gordon in the hole at the line of scrimmage. Knowing his size disadvantage, the safety wrapped up at the legs to bring him down after a two-yard gain.
Two plays later, facing a third and 13, Rivers checked down to Danny Woodhead, but the Steelers were well-positioned to hold him short of the first down. Golden came up and would have been able to make the tackle, had Bud Dupree not shown excellent hustle to chase the play down the field to do so himself.
Late in the first half, Golden lined up in the slot over the tight end before dropping into deeper coverage. Rivers found his wide receiver coming over on a crossing route to convert the third down, but the safety came up to prevent the play from going much further beyond that.
Two plays later, he found himself caught in no man’s land. He did the right thing in breaking to the flat, but Rivers was already cocked to throw behind Golden to the wide receiver breaking on a corner route, cutting inside Antwon Blake for a 14-yard gain.
Early in the second half, from the five-yard line, Golden came up to make the tackle on the tight end after he got away from the covering linebacker. On the first play of the Chargers’ next possession, however, he came up to the box to play the run and failed to wrap up the back, though the miss was not detrimental to the play.
Later on that same drive, Golden got caught flat-footed trying to defend a potential breakaway off a screen pass that ended up going for 20 yards, on a play that could have gone for more had he been the only defender in the vicinity.
At the top of the fourth quarter, the Steelers rushed Golden on the blitz, who did a good job of pressuring Rivers into a poor throw, smartly getting his hands up once he knew he wouldn’t get home. The incompletion forced the Chargers to settle for a 40-yard field goal.
Unfortunately, Golden suffered the same fate as Allen at the end of the first drive of the game, getting beaten by Gates for an intermediate touchdown to the left corner of the end zone. The safety had no chance of defending the corner post after taking a false step forward in the end zone, playing the man rather than the ball.
Golden has not gotten a ton of playing time in his career—somewhere around 200 snaps in total, with a big chunk of that coming on Monday—but this will be the first time for him in the starting lineup. He has a big opportunity to prove his doubters wrong, though the tape doesn’t necessarily favor that proposition.