The Pittsburgh Steelers got some great news in practice yesterday, as both starting safety Robert Golden and sub-package cornerback Justin Gilbert returned to full participation in practice, which for Golden had been two weeks in the running, and Gilbert for one week. Their return to availability opens up a wide variety of opportunities for Pittsburgh in the secondary now going forward.
Consider this: over the course of the first five games, the Steelers have now seen contributions from all 10 defensive backs on the roster. Seven of them have experienced highly meaningful playing time, while Gilbert was worked into in a sub-package that appears to have been by intention to stay around.
Also having contributed as times were the recently called up Al-Hajj Shabazz, who played Gilbert’s role in the defense on Sunday, and reserve safety Shamarko Thomas, who saw a scattered few snaps here and there in the early stages of the season as an injury fill-in.
Thomas is not likely to resume a significant role any time soon, and Shabazz likely will remain behind Gilbert in the pecking order—he may even eventually be moved back down to the practice squad once the team is fully convinced the secondary is healthy, and once they need a roster opening—but the rest offers significant variability.
In Jordan Dangerfield, they discovered over the span of the past two weeks that they have another safety on the roster that they can trust to step in and fill a role efficiently. In Gilbert, they feel they might have a player with the coverage skills and size to match up well with today’s receiving tight ends.
Add in the variability of rookies Artie Burns and Sean Davis, not to mention the rest of the starting lineup other than Golden not already named, and it quickly becomes obvious that he team has an extraneous amount of now battle-tested moving parts that they can play with.
This at the very least poses the possibility of creating a greater level of specificity in game-planning, offering the coaches the ability to identify what challenges the upcoming opponent offers in terms of personnel or scheme, and choosing the player or players who best fit the matchup criteria to combat it.
There doesn’t have to be, after all, an assigned nickel player. Sometimes it can be Davis. Sometimes it can be Burns. Sometimes it can be Gilbert. The Steelers have shown that they don’t always even need to play with two safeties.
Over the course of the past two weeks, the defense has shown a five-defensive back look that presents just one safety matched up with four cornerbacks. They were so committed to this look that when they lost Gilbert, they slid a first-year practice squad call-up into that role, even if it was only a small handful of snaps.
The secondary may not be stocked with All-Pro talent, but what the Steelers have assembled this year, part by planning, perhaps part by happenstance, is a unit that is able to contribute in some capacity from the top of the depth chart to the bottom, and if they are smart, they will exploit the flexibility that that offers.