When the Pittsburgh Steelers determined to grapple with what figures to be a multi-week injury with third-year cornerback Justin Gilbert, who may not return until after the team’s Week Eight Bye, they made the decision that they could no longer afford to carry second-year cornerback Senquez Golson while he attempts to return from a Lisfranc injury that required surgery.
Excluding the multi-positional rookie safety Sean Davis, the injuries left Pittsburgh with just three healthy cornerbacks on the roster, with starters William Gay and Ross Cockrell, in addition to rookie Artie Burns. In light of this, they decided to promote from the practice squad first-year cornerback Al-Hajj Shabazz, who is now the 10th defensive back on the roster.
It is unclear whether or not his place on the roster is a long-term one over the course of this season, but considering the circumstances with the numbers in the secondary and his contributions on special teams, it would not be surprising if he does end up sticking around.
What was a surprise was the fact that the coaching staff was comfortable with him enough to insert him into the game in a package that they had been developing for Gilbert, which they finally broke out, in part due to necessity, two Sundays ago against the Chiefs.
Gilbert played eight snaps in that game, during which he was primarily stuck onto Kansas City’s starting tight end. Shabazz played Gilbert’s role on Sunday, also seeing a handful of snaps, in what may possibly hint toward a package that will have some staying power in the secondary this year, and with multiple players who can execute it.
In all cases, the Steelers utilized a single-safety look, taking Jordan Dangerfield off the field, and using Shabazz as needed, on either side or in the slot. His first snap in the game came early in the second quart on a third-and-nine play on which he covered the slot receiver.
Later in the quarter, following a play in which Davis gave up an 18-yard completion out of the slot on a rub route, Shabazz was inserted for one play on first down, on which he was lined up near the tight end, but on which he looked like a threat to blitz, which turned out to be a run.
The defense actually opened with Shabazz on the field for the first two plays of their second defensive drive in the third quarter. He was lined up over Austin Seferian-Jenkins on both plays, giving up a nine-yard reception on the first play.
The Jets did go three-and-out on that drive, and Shabazz saw his final snap on the first play of the next drive, lined up over Seferian-Jenkins in the slot, who this time was stood up as a wide receiver, rather than in a three-point stance on the line.
The shared trait between Gilbert and Shabazz is, obviously, their size. They are the two tallest and heaviest cornerbacks on the roster, and the coaching staff has been primarily sticking them on tight ends. It will be interesting to see how long this one-safety package lasts when they get healthy in the secondary.