The Pittsburgh Steelers suffered a pair of injuries to the safety position in last week’s victory over the Chargers, injuries that have had clear repercussions heading into this week.
It started, of course, with the release of Ross Ventrone, who has been a coveted asset for the Steelers on special teams over the course of the past season-plus. His injury suffered late in the game made him expendable when the team needed to open up a roster spot to activate wide receiver Martavis Bryant. Perhaps he will be back when he is healed—perhaps not.
More immediately concerning though would be the injury to starting strong safety Will Allen, who missed 68 of 76 defensive snaps in San Diego after suffering an ankle injury that kept him out of practice all week and which will force him to miss this afternoon’s important matchup against a potent vertical offense.
As of this moment, the Steelers have only three safeties that will be active for this game, including Mike Mitchell, who has been the starting free safety for the past two seasons, and has, largely quietly, played very well through the first five games of this year after receiving extensive criticism for his first year of action in Pittsburgh.
Replacing Allen in the starting lineup will be Robert Golden, which is a sentence that would have borne a credible amount of surprise if written about a month and a half ago. At the time, it was Shamarko Thomas squarely logging the starter’s snaps and Allen serving as the reliable, versatile veteran backup at both safety positions.
The lineup turnover occurred overnight, though; following the conclusion of the preseason, Thomas was thrust from the starting lineup, and Allen was installed ahead of him as the veteran presence that he has shown himself to be over the course of his tenure with the Steelers, which is the most extensive of the group.
Not only were Thomas and Allen flipped, though, but Golden was also installed as the reserve safety at both positions. In essence, it was a straight demotion for Thomas, descending two levels because the coaching staff was not adequately comfortable with his level of understanding of the defense and of his ability to quickly synthesize information on the field.
The odds would seem to favor Thomas logging some snaps in this game, however, as the Steelers have played at least three safeties at one point or another in every game of the season thus far.
For his part, Mitchell has not logged 100 percent of the team’s defensive snaps in any game this season, though on at least one occasion that was a result of him coming off the field for the goal line defense, which employs just one defensive back.
But the veteran safety has gotten nicked up here and there throughout the season, being forced off the field for a couple of snaps at a time. It happened in the last game after Allen was already out, meaning that Thomas had to play, and he ended up recovering a fumble. That, and avoiding boneheaded special teams penalties, could be his road to redemption in regaining the coaches’ trust.