Devil’s Advocate: Defending Between The Hash Marks

You may recall for the past several offseasons that I ran an article series called The Optimist’s/Pessimist’s Take. I used it to explore different issues and topics the Pittsburgh Steelers were facing and took a positive or negative approach, examining each side in a separate article. This is essentially the same idea behind that, only condensed into one article for every topic.

In this version of the idea, I’ll be playing the Devil’s Advocate for both sides of the issue, looking at the best-case and worst-case scenarios in trying to find the range of likely outcomes of what is likely to happen for the Steelers relating to whatever topic the article is covering.

When it comes to the process of trying to construct a championship roster, the reality is that there are a ton of moving parts, and several ways to acquire said parts. There are a lot of things that can go right or wrong in not always predictable ways, so I think it’s helpful to try to look at issues by seeking out the boundaries of the likely positive or negative results.

Topic: Are the Steelers adequately prepared to better defend the middle of the field against slot receivers, running backs, and tight ends?

This might be hard for some to believe, but the Steelers’ pass defense actually had its biggest issues not at the boundaries with Ross Cockrell and Artie Burns—though make no mistake, there were certainly some, and that needs to be improved as well—but rather over the middle of the field.

That is the domain of the nickel cornerback (or safety) and the inside linebackers, as well as whatever outside linebacker may be dropping back at any given play.

On paper, one would think that they should be better equipped, simply due to the maturation of the players and the scheme. Sean Davis could play a bigger role in the slot this year if the coaching staff is willing to expand his responsibilities. Of course, the role of the strong safety calls for that sort of play from time to time regardless.

The addition of Cameron Sutton and Coty Sensabaugh—and lingering hopes of Senquez Golson getting on the field—at the very least present the image of creating competition for the slot cornerback position, with the winner getting the spoils and the playing time.

They also lost Lawrence Timmons, who had his struggles in coverage over the past couple of seasons. But he is being replaced by a less experienced player with more struggles in coverage in Vince Williams. In fact, this is the only starter that they lost, and they didn’t add any players to compensate for the loss.

Whatever the answer is to this question, I believe that it is going to play a critical role in defining the shape that the Steelers’ defense takes this season. You should recall that a lot of their most significant damage came over the middle of the field a year ago. The Steelers gave up the fourth- and 11th-most yards to backs and tight ends, but the sixth-fewest to wide receivers (and the second-fewest touchdowns), so consider that when contemplating the pass defense. But that’s really a broader topic for a separate article.

Which side do you lean closer toward?

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