The Pessimist’s Take: Cornerbacks Against The Run

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 pessimist’s take on the following question.

Question: Are the Steelers equipped with an adequate group of cornerbacks who are capable of holding their end in the run game?

The Steelers’ run defense made a somewhat rapid improvement last season after having been a general liability for most of the previous half-decade. While they finished sixth in the league in total rushing yards allowed in 2014, for example, their yards per carry allowed was far worse, to show how certain statistics are best understood in a broader context.

Last season, the defense allowed only 3.8 yards per carry, which was comfortably within the top 10 in the league, and the front seven—or I should say, front six, when it comes to the nickel defense—should certainly be as good or better than it was last season. also gone are a couple of notable tackling liabilities from the starting lineup last year.

There is a concern, however, over whether or not the success of the run defense can be sustained by their chief perimeter defenders, the cornerbacks, particularly if they do indeed continue to use more Cover 2 looks, which places a greater run defense responsibility on the position.

William Gay is a capable run supporter, even if he might be aging, but he is the only known quantity in that portion of the game, at the age of 31. The rest of the contributors have some question marks. That includes the presumptive starter opposite him, Ross Cockrell, who has always struggled with the physical aspect of the game.

While he has reportedly put on some weight this offseason, it needs to be noted that Cockrell was exclusively a nickel cornerback. He never played in the base defense last year, where teams are more inclined to be facing a run situation. It is imperative that he steps up in the run game.

Second-year cornerback Senquez Golson is under 5’9” and has “bulked up” to around 185 or so pounds. He is recovering from a supposedly chronic shoulder injury. Those things don’t scream run defense. And if you watched much of rookie Artie Burns’ college tape, you’ll see that he was routinely manhandled by wide receivers on the perimeter. He has a lot of work to do before he will be trusted to be a solid run defender, which is a priority for the Steelers.

The only young cornerback on the roster who has even a remote reputation for being a strong tackler or run supporter is Doran Grant, who figures at best to be fifth on the depth chart. It should also be added that other than Gay, the run defense will be involving a lot of new players unaccustomed to seeing such a big role in the run defense, which is very much cause for concern.

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