Secondary Shuffle – 2016: Investment And Early Return

We are getting closer and closer to the present day, having now arrived at the 2016 season. The Pittsburgh Steelers finally accepted that they would have to make significant additions in talent if they wanted to see change, and to that end they used top picks on cornerback Artie Burns and safety Sean Davis.

Also in the cards was the previous year’s second-round pick, Senquez Golson, but he suffered a foot injury in training camp that prevented him from playing at all during the year, even though he did spend time on the 53-man roster as an inactive.

Two players that showed potential the year before, Ross Cockrell and Robert Golden, entered the season as starters. Neither of them are with the team heading in 2018.

Player 2016 Games 2016 Starts 2016 Snaps
Ross Cockrell 16 16 1024
Mike Mitchell 16 16 1004
William Gay 16 9 847
Artie Burns 16 9 807
Sean Davis 16 9 741
Robert Golden 13 7 378
Jordan Dangerfield 14 2 125
Justin Gilbert 12 0 11
Shamarko Thomas 8 0 6
Al-Hajj Shabazz 7 0 6

Having moved on from Will Allen, who started in 2015 after Shamarko Thomas blew his opportunity, Golden got the chance to open the year as the starter alongside Mike Mitchell at safety. The only veteran cornerback, William Gay also started by default, with Cockrell across from him. Davis entered the year working in the slot after Golson was injured.

2016 Ross Cockrell William Gay Sean Davis Robert Golden Mike Mitchell

The starting lineup changed significantly by the end of the year, primarily due to the emergence of the two rookies. Burns first bumped Davis as the nickel, kicking Gay inside, then started on the outside, with Gay the nickel in the slot. Davis began rotating with Golden at safety after the bye week and then took over the starting job.

2016 Ross Cockrell Artie Burns William Gay Sean Davis Mike Mitchell

Though they came out with wins, the passing defense got off to a slow start to the year, giving up over 300 yards through the air in the first three weeks. Much of that came off of missed tackles that led to yards after the catch, especially in the loss to the Eagles.

Jordan Dangerfield started for the injured Golden for the next two games and played well as a box presence. In fact, the secondary numbers for the rest of the year were drastically improved, at least until the AFC Championship game.

With the influx of young talent in the second half of the year, but also bolstered by weaker opponents, including some backup quarterbacks, the secondary looked to be on the upswing, but of course the whole team gave that appearance during a nine-game winning streak, including the first two rounds of the playoffs.

The rookies had their mistakes, especially Burns at cornerback, who was, well, burned a few times for big plays. But he did get his hands on passes, including three interceptions, something that he would not have going for him in year two.

Mitchell’s play suffered in part due to injury, in part due to covering for rookies, and part due to natural decline. That would be even more evident in 2017. You may recall that Justin Gilbert made a very brief cameo appearance, used to cover athletic tight ends in a couple of games. Even Al-Hajj Shabazz was given that role in a game Gilbert missed.

The Steelers are hoping, however, that the two new pieces that they added this season will be part of a core of new talent that brings forth a better secondary in 2018. We’ll discuss the early stages of that process tomorrow in a recap of the 2017 season.

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