For as much as the secondary may have made great strides during the 2016 season in comparison to recent years, it certainly didn’t feel that way for the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday against the Patriots. Nobody would be quicker to agree with that than the players back in the secondary themselves.
“We will continue to look at this matchup with the Patriots and see where we can get better”, left outside starting cornerback Ross Cockrell told Chris Adamski recently for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “Because our goal is the standard, our goal is the Super Bowl. And we failed to reach it this year. But whoever is back next year I’m sure is going to work hard to reach that standard”.
The Steelers did make major improvements in terms of their statistical output as a pass-coverage team in comparison to last year. You can even see a clear improvement in the second half of the season in comparison to the first. They lowered their yards per game allowed substantially, as well as other key statistics, such as yards per pass attempt and touchdowns.
But that meant little in Foxboro as Tom Brady methodically picked apart a Steelers defensive unit that had no counters for every answer the future Hall of Fame quarterback had for their attempts to get after him.
New England’s offensive line handled Pittsburgh’s pressure packages much better than most expected. That resulted in the team instead dropping more players into coverage, which yielded no better results against a secondary that was not quite yet ready to engage in man coverage on a consistent basis with two rookie starters in the lineup.
But those same rookies and their expected growth are a key ingredient in the optimism for the future of this secondary and of their ability to grow and to learn from their experiences against the Patriots on Sunday. As well as the bitter taste of defeat in the AFC Championship game on the doorstep to a Super Bowl berth.
Artie Burns and Sean Davis both played above the level that was anticipated for them during their rookie seasons. Cockrell himself also likely surpassed the expectations that many had set for him, even if he did fail to record an interception in his first full year as a starter.
The wildcard for next season is whether or not the Steelers are able to get anything out of third-year cornerback Senquez Golson. The 2014 second-round draft pick has spent most of the past two seasons on injured reserve and has yet to take a snap in even a preseason game.
Golson was expected to inherit the slot position from William Gay before dealing with yet another injury this past year. The result was the Steelers briefly experimenting with Davis in the slot before Burns was ready to play outside, which allowed them to kick Gay back inside. Still, if the lesson of Sunday’s game is not well-learned, then one has to wonder how much is to be gained.