The Pittsburgh Steelers are only five games into the 2018 regular season, but they have already played nine different defensive backs on defense for a relatively extended period of time, out of a total of 12, and that includes one that has already been put on injured reserve.
Some of those opportunities were created by injury. Some of them developed as a result of poor performance. Others were created just because the Steelers wanted to utilize the talent that they have available to them—though communication problems have made the group look worse than necessary.
“We’re getting a chance to play a lot of people, but I think those are some of the challenges and opportunities that today’s NFL gives us, and defensive backs particularly”, Head Coach Mike Tomlin said on Tuesday during his weekly press conference, “because on possession downs, there’s a lot of those guys employed in different ways in today’s NFL”.
The Steelers entered the regular season with a starting lineup that consisted of Joe Haden and Artie Burns at cornerback, Sean Davis at free safety, Morgan Burnett at strong safety, and Mike Hilton at nickelback. Terrell Edmunds has come on as a sixth defender, and Cameron Sutton even entered the picture as a ‘dollar’ defender, though we’ve only seen that package once so far.
Coty Sensabaugh and Nat Berhe have also gotten on the field. The only defensive backs who have yet to play on defense are Jordan Dangerfield—who has two starts under his belt—rookie Marcus Allen, and second-year cornerback Brian Allen. The latter Allen was just called up from the practice squad and saw extended time on special teams, but the former Allen has been a healthy scratch all year so far.
Said Tomlin of the collective group behind the starters, “the other guys are simply trying to take advantage of reps given, putting their hands in the pile and being a positive contributor to our efforts”.
The very first ‘opportunity’ was immediate, when Burnett started the season banged up. They gave Edmunds the chance to start and play most of the game, and he has been a full-time starter due to injury for the past three weeks.
Haden was also injured in that game, which resulted in Sutton and Sensabaugh rotating in replacing him. Then Burns was demoted, seeing Sensabaugh start in his place, with the former only rotating in. They continue to rotate, but Burns is starting again and seeing the majority of the snaps.
When Hilton missed a week, Sutton started in the nickel in place of him. While he was down along with Burnett, Berhe took over the dimebacker role. Now with Berhe on injured reserve, and Hilton back, it’s Sutton being used as the dime defender in Burnett’s absence.
It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest, however, if Dangerfield does get on the field as a third safety at some point while Burnett remains sidelined. He would seem to be a good candidate for a box defender, after all.