The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.
Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.
But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the optimist’s take on the following question.
Question: Can defensive back Shamarko Thomas find some sort of role on defense this season?
This should be a fun one. Over the course of the past two seasons, 2013 fourth-round draft pick Shamarko Thomas has developed into perhaps the most polarizing player that remains on the roster heading into the 2016 season.
There are a lot of factors that go into that, of course, starting with the fact that the Steelers traded a future third-round draft pick for a fourth-round draft pick in order to select him. That he was groomed as the heir apparent to Troy Polamalu and failed did not help. Nor had his injuries in his first two seasons done him any favors. Finally, the number of fair catch interference penalties that he accrued last season have led some to question whether he even has it upstairs to play the game.
There is a small but vocal group of few who still believe in the undersized safety, even as the odds seem stacked against him. But perhaps the Steelers could best serve Thomas by simply not defining his role, and letting a role find him.
Remember, during his rookie season, he spent a fair amount of time mixing into the defense during the first half of the year as a nickel player, living up against wide receivers, running back, and tight ends. Man coverage was something that was shown in his skill set as a college player, as was the capacity to deal some big hits, even if he is only 5’9”.
Perhaps he will never enter the starting lineup at this point in his career—he went from projected starter to second backup between the end of the preseason and the regular season opener this past season, which is never a vote of confidence—but that doesn’t mean he can’t play a role on defense.
Should the Steelers be unable to address the defensive backfield over the course of the remainder of the offseason as they would have cared to, then perhaps they can fall back on Thomas to serve as a sort of sub-package player, giving him specific assignments, such as blitzing or occupying the slot, and in that role he can be successful, because it has tended to be the moments in which he has to think the most that he has failed the most.