The Pittsburgh Steelers are a defense is a unit that is interested in becoming more versatile, in a variety of ways, but perhaps the most prominent has been the outspoken desire to be more capable of playing in man-to-man coverage this season in select situations when it is warranted.
They have to get better at doing that, and they have spent recent years trying to add personnel that can run it more effectively. Artie Burns, their first-round draft pick a year ago, is one such player. Their third-round pick this year, Cameron Sutton, as well as fifth-round Brian Allen. Both of them were drafted with a mind toward having the ability to play in man coverage.
But they also have to not only be able to stick with a receiver, they also have to be able to be physical with a receiver. They have to be able to jam them at the line of scrimmage and reroute them down the field. They can’t be beaten at the snap and allow the receiver to escape.
This is something that Ross Cockrell learned after his first season of serious action in 2015, although one might argue about the results that he delivered. While he had a good season, he didn’t necessarily look to be all that physical.
Still, he talked about it last year. He went down the Miami heading into training camp to work out, saying that “it’s definitely necessary” to improve his strength “if I want to take on the role that I want to take on this year” in order to compete with some of the big, strong starting receivers around the league.
And wouldn’t you know it, after his first season of significant experience, Burns is singing the same tune. Alex Kozora already wrote about his plans to take Jiu Jitsu in the offseason and to improve his strength. “That’s just something I want to do”, he told Missi Matthews. “Just the basic training in the weight room. I feel like if I get stronger, I’ll be able to play against some of the bigger receivers like Dez, guys like Julio—guys like that”.
I know at least one person reading this article who is very happy to hear this. And I know that I am as well, as I have previously expressed skepticism about this secondary’s ability to play with the requisite physical components that would be necessary to effectively execute in press coverage.
I wrote about it last season, wondering how the secondary would be able to handle the run should Cockrell and Burns be the cornerbacks. And, in truth, there were definitely times last season when they were a major issue in that area; the first Miami game immediately springs to mind.
But, as both Cockrell and Burns talked about, the need for strength at the cornerback position is not just for the ability to hold up against the run, but also to hold up against the big-bodied receivers that are prominent today. It’s no easy task attempting to reroute A.J. Green.