The 2016 season is unfortunately over, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are now embarking upon their latest offseason journey, heading back to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, formerly known and still referred to as the ‘South Side’ facility of Heinz Field. While the postseason is now behind us, there is plenty left to discuss.
And there are plenty of questions left unanswered as well. The offseason is just really the beginning phase of the answer-seeking process, which is lasts all the way through the Super Bowl for teams fortunate enough to reach that far.
You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring the developments in the offseason as they develop, and beyond, looking for the answers as we look to evaluate the makeup of the Steelers as they try to navigate their way back to the Super Bowl, after reaching the AFC Championship game last season for the first time in more than half a decade.
Question: Will the Steelers’ run defense from the cornerback position improve this season?
I think that one of the most overlooked issues that the Steelers have had over the course of the past few years has been their run support from the secondary, but more specifically from the cornerback position on the boundary.
To be quite honest, their most reliable tackler at cornerback has been and remains William Gay, whose reputation continues to be sullied because he was one caught in no-man’s-land against an in-his-prime Adrian Peterson and got trucked. The truth is that he has always been decent to solid in run support.
But especially with him now playing full-time in the slot, there remain concerns about what the Steelers have to offer as run defenders near the boundaries in Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell, a pair of cornerbacks—the former a rookie—who saw their first full-time starting experience just a year ago.
The fact that they were so new to such extensive playing time right off the bat would give some level of optimism about improvement from last year to this year, and both Burns and Cockrell independently have talked about a desire to get stronger and play more physical, but neither of them have specifically talked about defending the run, to the best of my knowledge, and instead were focusing on matching up against bigger wide receivers.
This is an inexact science and just a very loose barometer, but according to Pro Football Reference, the Steelers allowed 44 runs of 10 yards or more. 21 of them were listed as having gone to the perimeter, either off left or right end or left or right tackle. Seven of them were by Jay Ajayi in Week Six.
While the cornerbacks alone cannot fully account for the failures on those plays, it is also true that this barometer doesn’t fully capture all of their failures on other running plays. The simple point is that this was a significant issue last season, and needs to be improved. So will it?