It may have taken a full 30 percent of their secondary going down, but on Sunday night, the recently acquired third-year cornerback Justin Gilbert finally got on the field on defense for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
And it wasn’t much, but it was a start, at least, a taste. He played just eight of the Steelers’ 77 defensive snaps, and generally, there was a clear pattern behind it—obvious passing situations. What is interesting is that the Steelers did not actually turn to their dime defense when they moved to this package. Instead, they converted to a modified nickel defense in which they utilized four cornerbacks and one safety, as they felt was dictated by their available personnel—for a reason that you will understand better once I get to explaining the manner in which Gilbert was used when he was on the field.
The former top-10 draft pick saw the field for just eight snaps against the Chiefs, and on each of those snaps, the Steelers took safety Jordan Dangerfield off the field, leaving Mike Mitchell as the lone safety. On all but one of these snaps, Mitchell acted as the lone safety, but on one snap, Ross Cockrell did rotate backward into a deep zone, effectively playing a safety role.
And on almost all of these snaps, the Steelers very specifically used Gilbert for the purposes of lining up against Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. In hindsight, this is a game plan that makes a lot of sense when you consider the hand that the team was dealt entering the game.
If you consider the fact that the team lost their two best safeties on the roster with respect to man coverage abilities on tight ends prior to the game in Robert Golden and rookie Sean Davis, then it begins to come clearer why they might have turned to the tall, speedy cornerback in order to cover Kelce, who is largely a glorified wide receiver.
The Steelers lined Gilbert up over Kelce—often tight at the line of scrimmage—regardless of where he set up pre-snap, which was often as an in-line player in these eight circumstances, but, except for the one play that was a run, he ran a route on all of them.
Gilbert was targeted just once in his eight snaps, and it came inside the 10-yard line on a pass to Kelce that he basically dropped, but in general, he did a reasonable job in his coverage assignments after joining the team less than two months ago.
The fact that Davis was evidently not deemed fit to play, in spite of the fact that he was dressed, likely had a lot to do with the fact that the Steelers ended up turning to Gilbert—and not to the box safety in Dangerfield for the height-deprived Shamarko Thomas. Once the injury situation gets cleared up, it is likely that he will struggle to get back on the field on defense, if you consider the circumstances it took to give birth to his playing time on Sunday night.