2017 South Side Questions: Will J.J. Wilcox See Defensive Snaps When He Returns?

The journey toward the Super Bowl is now well under way with the Pittsburgh Steelers back practicing at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, still informally referred to as the ‘South Side’ facility. With the regular season standing in their way on the path to a Lombardi, there will be questions for them to answer along the way.

We have asked and answered a lot of questions during the preseason and through training camp, but much of the answer-seeking ends in the regular season, and teams simply have to make do with what they have available to them. Still, there will always be questions for us.

You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring the developments in the regular season and beyond as they develop, looking for the answers as we evaluate the makeup of the Steelers on 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 J.J. Wilcox return to the field on Sunday, and if so, will he see time on defense?

The Pittsburgh Steelers overall got some positive news on the health front yesterday, which included seeing Stephon Tuitt and T.J. Watt working their way back from injuries. While Marcus Gilbert did not practice, the return of J.J. Wilcox to full participation in practice is a good sign.

The fifth-year safety suffered a concussion as he hit Browns wide receiver Corey Coleman at the goal line on a touchdown reception. The two players collided head-to-head, with the defender getting the worst of it.

That play came on the Steelers’ final defensive snap of the season opener—not including a two-point conversion attempt—but during the game, Wilcox was rotating in the game with Mike Mitchell. The coaches were evidently being cautious in working the veteran starter back to full snaps after he missed virtually all of training camp and the preseason with a hamstring injury.

Even if Mitchell plays every snap in the game, however, that does not mean that they can’t find snaps for the former Cowboys starter. If they have their starting safeties fully up and running, then potentially they could use him as an option in their six-defensive-back packages.

To date, they have run around a couple dozen snaps with six players in the secondary, and in every instance it has been four cornerbacks, but in recent history, they have greatly favored using a third safety—albeit largely dictated by the available talent.

In the one year in which there was some flexibility, in 2011, the Steelers used both cornerback Cortez Allen and safety Ryan Mundy as the sixth defensive back. Now that they have William Gay in addition to Wilcox, they have choices that they can use circumstantially. But will they?

One caveat is that he is likely to see time in the goal line defense. Mitchell has not played in those packages, with Robert Golden replacing him when they have used two safeties, but that could now be Wilcox instead. At times they have also used only one safety in the goal line package.

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