Secondary Shuffle – 2017: Start Of Something Good?

We have finally arrived at the here and now, or at least the nearest of the there and then, a recap of the 2017 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers as it pertains to the defensive backfield. It was a year that got off to a roaring start but cooled dramatically for a long stretch before a slight rebound toward the end.

Big changes came over the course of the previous two seasons. 2016 draft picks Artie Burns and Sean Davis were installed as full-time starters while Joe Haden was added just before the season started to lock down the left outside cornerback spot, and out of nowhere emerged Mike Hilton in the slot.

Player 2017 Games 2017 Starts 2017 Snaps
Artie Burns 16 16 974
Sean Davis 16 16 949
Mike Mitchell 13 13 681
Joe Haden 11 11 613
Mike Hilton 16 4 577
William Gay 16 0 264
Coty Sensabaugh 14 4 241
J.J. Wilcox 12 1 132
Cameron Sutton 5 1 113

The Steelers were still hoping for something from Senquez Golson, but that ship finally sailed when he suffered a hamstring injury in training camp. An injury to rookie third-round pick Cameron Sutton didn’t help either. Ross Cockrell lost his job and was traded after the Haden acquisition, while William Gay and Coty Sensabaugh remained as depth, Brian Allen in a redshirt year. The team also traded for J.J. Wilcox, hoping he would be their backup safety.

In a rarity only one subsequent chart is necessary, because the lineup that entered the year also finished it, even if there was some ebb and flow in the middle due to injury. Burns and Haden opened the season as the starting cornerbacks, with Davis and Mike Mitchell at safety, and Hilton in the slot. That’s the same lineup that finished the year.

2017 Joe Haden Artie Burns Mike Hilton Sean Davis Mike Mitchell

Despite some early growing pains, given that Haden barely even got to practice with the team, the Steelers, as mentioned, were able to put up good numbers in the secondary early in the season, in terms of passing yards allowed per game.

Only two of their first seven opponents were able to throw for over 200 yards against them, one being 206 yards and the other being 223, and in both of those games, the opponents were trailing for most of the game, forced to throw.

Things changed in the game before the bye week in Detroit, however, which started to open the floodgates. While the defense slammed the Lions’ offense in four trips inside the red zone, Matthew Stafford threw the ball all over the field for a net of 411 passing yards.

That was the only game of the season in which they allowed 300 or more passing yards, though one of five (over the last nine games) in which they allowed at least 250 passing yards. More concerning was the sudden proliferation of double-explosive plays, and those plays turning into touchdowns.

There was a variety of reasons for this, many coming from Haden’s replacements while he was injured, but Burns was burned as well, and miscommunication contributed to a number of them.

Sutton spent most of the season on injured reserve, but got to start a game while Haden was out after Sensabaugh was benched as the first man up. He flashed potential and should be in line for a bigger role this year.

I don’t know what the 2018 season will hold, but it could be the start of something good. Despite the heat they’re getting lately, Burns and Davis are still young and developing players, as is Hilton, whom everybody loves. Haden is a quality veteran, and Mitchell has been replaced by Morgan Burnett, who is a play-caller.

We might as well be optimistic, right? What’s the alternative, self-inflicted misery?

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