The Pittsburgh Steelers are just a year removed from at 13-3 season. Even last year, they posted a winning record and came within half a game of reaching the postseason for the fifth consecutive year, the only team to have done that being the New England Patriots.
A lot has gone right in Pittsburgh. As much as it might not seem so at times, they are still one of the better teams in the league, generally speaking. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have their warts, and areas of improvement, many of which concern the defensive side of the ball in particular.
One area of the team that was in need of an upgrade from 2017 was the safety position, and the Steelers took measures to improve there, releasing three from that group and adding four during the 2018 offseason, though the two free agents they signed figure to no longer be with the team.
The changes also included moving third-year Sean Davis from strong safety to free safety, a position at which he had no meaningful prior experience. The former second-round pick even talked about drawing from his experiences of playing the center field position in baseball in order to help himself prepare for the change.
While there were some growing pains associated with the move, the more often than not performed well, or well enough, in his new role. He did so at a level sufficient enough for Pro Football Focus to regard him as the Steelers’ most improved player from the previous season.
That is in large part because they had a very low opinion of his play in 2017, admittedly. He was their lowest-graded safety that year, and a lot of that had to do with his very high volume of missed tackles, which he was able to cut down on during this past season.
In 15 games last year, Davis recorded 80 tackles with one interception and seven passes defensed. The interception came against the New Orleans Saints in the penultimate game of the season, a loss that proved to be fatal to their playoff hopes.
While PFF may have judged that Davis improved in 2018, the truth is that he needs to get even better this year, in terms of both his consistency and his playmaking ability. Both he and 2018 rookie Terrell Edmunds have the talent to become a very good pair of safeties, but they must live up to their potential.
That task will fall upon Tom Bradley in his second season as the defensive backs coach and Teryl Austin, his new assistant. If the Steelers can solidify the back end, and perhaps force quarterbacks to hold onto the ball longer, it could make an enormous difference to what they are capable of achieving on the defensive side of the football.