For the moment, at least, the Pittsburgh Steelers are counting on rookie defensive back Sean Davis to be able to be an immediate contributor on the defensive side of the ball, serving as the team’s starting nickel back. Though he was drafted to play safety, injury and need has moved him into the slot with the first-team unit.
The Steelers talked about his cornerback capabilities when he was first drafted, after all, and were even working him extensively in the slot back in the spring, so it’s clear that it was at least in the plans as an option. They also talked about the similarities born between the safety and slot positions, which I think were on display on Thursday against the Eagles, as well as his general ability to carry them out.
Philadelphia was backed up near their own end zone early in the game, and after a pair of run stops, faced a third and eight from within the shadow of their own goal line. The Eagles ran a bubble screen, but Davis diagnosed it quickly and engaged the nearest blocker as the defense converged for the stop.
A bit later in the game, somewhat early still in the second quarter, the Eagles were approaching midfield with a first-and-10 play in hand. On this occasion, Davis can be seen clearly playing the run first, eying the backfield prior to the snap. Stephon Tuitt was blown off the ball by a double team, but Davis was able to come up to make the shoe-string tackle to prevent a solid gain from turning into an excellent one.
Still later, early in the third quarter, the rookie transitioned out of the slot with the first-team defense to the safety position—on this occasion the deep safety—with the second-team personnel. The Eagles were again deep in their own territory, but the back was able to slip through. Davis tried to come up from about 15 yards off the ball, but in the open field, he struggled to get a clean grasp on the ball carrier. One might also add that he should have come up in run support sooner.
Philadelphia managed to march all the way down the field to score on that drive, ending it with a five-yard touchdown run. On this occasion, Davis came in on a blitz, but it proved to be on the back side of the play, rendering him a non-factor. Even when he turned to get back into the play, he was tripped by his own teammate.
As was the case in the first preseason game, Davis again played the vast majority. Mike Tomlin is using to his advantage the fact that the rookie came in with strong conditioning, and is testing him, getting him ready for a bigger role than anticipated. He can certainly still use the reps, but the framework for a successful contributor, I believe, is clearly there.