Old and slow.
That’s what the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense of yesteryear was call. Now, if you follow the team, you know that really wasn’t the truth. It was a cliche, a crutch for talking heads in non-Cheeto dusted suits to debate each night. But that was the phrase the team was associated with.
So is it sacrilegious to now call this defense – the depth in the secondary anyway – too young?
Now, to be clear, the depth isn’t slow. Some of these guys can fly. But as we learned from Dri Archer, it doesn’t always mean success. If you need a refresher on how well that worked out, just visit your local comments section/forum/Uncle Joe in Wexford. He’ll fill you in.
Let me reset. While Pittsburgh has taken clear steps to add talent to the secondary, the lack of experience is a concern. That doesn’t guarantee that it’s terrible, that it will end poorly, but that the team’s plan – like mice and men – may go awry.
Your presumed Week One starters at corner, including the nickel, are: William Gay, Ross Cockrell, and Senquez Golson. Cockrell, despite being with the team for one regular season, is the second most experienced one on the roster. Golson hasn’t taken a rep at St. Vincent, much less a game that changes the standings.
Behind them are first round pick Artie Burns and Doran Grant, who share a lone NFL snap between them.
The presumptive #3 safety is second rounder Sean Davis. Competition is light. Shamarko Thomas, trusted so little by the team that he was pulled before Week One, Ross Ventrone – the delightful but destined special teamer – and a couple of futures players. It appears that Davis may have to learn the assignments for Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden’s spots, no small task for any rookie.
Of course, depth is never going to be perfect. It’s like money. Always wanting more, but never having enough. And again, it’s not like there is a lack of talent. Inexperience is a lot better problem to have than sheer incompetence, though the argument is there that we have no clue the types of players Davis, Golson, and Burns are capable of becoming. A couple years ago Thomas was in the same spot, regarded as promising, untested depth. The heir to Troy Polamalu’s throne. Now, they aren’t even in the same kingdom.
Steelers’ fans know all too well of how quickly a depth chart can turn over in the secondary. When injuries strike, and they will, everyone’s depth is tested. It’s no longer possible to have just two top corners. You need to be four deep. At safety, at least three able bodies, to protect versus injury and to allow scheme flexibility, dime packages becoming the new fad. It’s not like the backups are getting a ton of reps in practice, either. It’ll take time to grow.
Again, there’s talent. But a whole lot of inexperience. Even the greats like Troy struggled early on. And the defensive backfield is the one place you really don’t want to have major breakdowns. Giving up easy points will turn Mike Tomlin’s jet black hair gray. It’s why I have a level of surprise the Steelers failed to add at least one veteran at either position during free agency. Will Allen will always remain on speed dial, I guess. Maybe that’s their plan.
The point to be made is obvious. But it’s an important one. At some moment, the fate of a game, maybe the season, is going to rest on young legs. And that’s a lot of hard work undone if a rookie makes a very rookie-like play.