With the Pittsburgh Steelers’ evident decision not to re-sign Will Allen, and given the fact that rookie second-round pick Sean Davis will likely take time to develop, it is widely, and probably safely, assumed that fifth-year safety Robert Golden will begin the 2016 season as the team’s starting strong safety.
A former undrafted free agent, Golden did see extended playing time on defense last season for the first time when he was called upon to replace Allen in the starting lineup after the veteran suffered an ankle injury eight snaps into a game. He played the rest of that game and then started the next three, and later in the season saw time as a sixth defensive back.
In spite of the fact that he played nearly 400 defensive snaps, however, it did not curtail his special teams duties in the slightest, logging 310 snaps in the third phase of the game, the most on the team, although there were dozens of players around the league who played even more extensively on special teams.
This is the Steelers, however, and Danny Smith, who tends to prefer more specialization between his variety of special teams units. And if the handling of Antwon Blake is anything to go by last season, then they are also a team that tends to prefer ticking back a player’s special teams responsibilities when they take on a bigger role on offense or defense.
If Golden is to be the starting strong safety this year, then, I can’t help but wonder what they might mean for his special teams contributions, which have fairly steadily risen over the course of his four seasons, nearly accounting for 70 percent of the team’s total special teams plays throughout the entire year.
He has been the Steelers’ special teams captain for two years running now, having been an integral part of a variety of units since his rookie season, but might Smith be looking for other options when it comes to filling Golden’s role when it comes time to working out who will be playing on which units by the time the regular season rolls around?
If he is playing 1000-plus snaps on defense this year, might he not be voted as the special teams captain this year? The distinction could go to somebody like Roosevelt Nix, or Vince Williams, the latter also logging 300 special teams snaps last year and Nix having quickly established himself as a new fixture in the unit.
Golden is the sort of player who has done a lot of the little things that don’t get noticed on special teams because they don’t immediately result in tackles or big returns all the time, but that shouldn’t be mistaken with the idea that his contributions would be easy to replace.
Should the situation present itself, then Golden and the coaching staff will have to find the right balance between giving him room to breathe on defense and filling his role on special teams. Perhaps Sean Davis will assume some of his responsibilities.