Newly-Shaped Cornerback Group Lacks Physical Presence

You might recall back during the draft that I invoked the name Justin Gilbert in referencing the Pittsburgh Steelers’ selection of cornerback Artie Burns in the first round, noting that the team wanted to draft him the year he came out in 2014, and that Burns fits the same sort of profile.

Ross Cockrell, whom they picked up as a street free agent, former a fourth-round draft pick in 2014, also bears similarities to Gilbert and Burns, and though only the latter was actually drafted by the team, the Steelers showed active interest in all of them, and however they got here, they are all now on the roster.

And, in a way, that is kind of a problem, particularly with respect to the fact that they all bear resemblances to one another in the sort of profile of cornerback that they are. Specifically, all three are cornerbacks more geared toward coverage—Cockrell has more experience in zone—but none of them fit the sort of physical profile that the Steelers have traditionally sought in their cornerbacks.

This is a notable philosophy shift, as that sort of cornerback was essential to Dick LeBeau’s defensive scheme, which required the cornerbacks to play an active role in the run game. William Gay is now the only cornerback on the roster with a physical temperament to him, and he is limited at times by his relatively small frame.

I broke down a handful of plays from Cockrell during the Steelers’ third preseason game against the Saints that highlighted a number of instances in which his lack of physicality was a hindrance to what the Steelers wanted to do on defense.

Burns’ college tape bears out similar concerns, as does the tape of Gilbert from both college and the professional level during his first two seasons with the Cleveland Browns, who traded the former first-round draft pick to Pittsburgh for just a sixth-round draft pick in 2018.

Whether or not Carnell Lake, Keith Butler, and the Steelers can salvage some sort of competent cornerback play out of Gilbert, the fact remains that they have a significant deficiency in terms of physicality among their cornerbacks.

This is supplemented in part by having safety Sean Davis playing in the slot, admittedly—he certainly will never be accused of not being a physical player—but it seems to me that in virtually any circumstance of play this year, the team is going to have on one side of the field a weak run defender on the perimeter.

Cockrell has spoken to the fact that he wanted to put on muscle over the course of the season multiple times, and he apparently has, but the fruits of that labor have not been borne out based on his preseason tape.

The fact that the team has seemingly grown flexible in this avenue is at least partially explained by the fact that the game simply involves a lot more passing than it used to, and that the Steelers play primarily with five or six defensive backs on the field. Nevertheless, I think this will be something to monitor.

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