Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin might take issue if you question his frequent claim that the free safety and strong safety positions in his defense are largely interchangeable, but that doesn’t change the fact that Sean Davis, how is playing free safety this season for the first time since high school, went all the way back to that old tape to help him learn how he plays in that spot.
This will be the third different position in which Davis, a 2016 second-round pick, has started for the Steelers. As a rookie, he opened the season as the team’s starting nickel cornerback for the first three games before suffering an injury. He was sidelined for several weeks before re-emerging at strong safety, where he played for the rest of the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
With the team electing to move on from Mike Mitchell and bringing in veteran Morgan Burnett to play strong safety as a presence in the box, the decision was made to move the athletic third-year safety to free, taking advantage of what they believe to be impressive range.
“I take pride in being the last line of defense”, Davis said of transitioning to the role. He was also adamant in his desire not to repeat the achievement of last season of leading the defense in tackles. As Burnett told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “you don’t want your free safety leading in tackles” because “that means you’re getting gassed”.
It’s no coincidence that Ryan Clark led the defense in tackles as the dominant defense of the 2000s entered its decline.
While Davis led the defense with his 90 tackles, he also led the group in missed tackles, which has many concerned about his new role as the ‘last line of defense’. But in the past, most of his misses have come in the box. Perhaps the move to free safety will help to set himself up in better positions to make plays. Because he does make a lot of plays. He has been around the football quite a bit over his first two seasons.
And he also showed the potential to make plays on the ball last season, leading the defense with three interceptions as the strong safety. He also had eight passes defensed, and you would like to see your free safety get into the double digits in terms of plays made on the ball. A couple of those passes defensed saved touchdowns in the end zone.
In his third year, Davis feels that his understanding of the defense is at an all-time high, especially after having played and learned three different positions. “I now know what everyone’s doing”, he said. “When I’m back there, I can get people lined up fast and get everyone on the same page”.
So far, he’s enjoying playing free safety. “Just being able to fly around and get guys lined up and make plays on the ball deep is something I’m loving to do”, he said. We’ll all get our first look at him in that role in a game setting tomorrow in the Steelers’ third preseason game.