There’s something to be said for continuity.
In Pittsburgh, you could say there hasn’t been much of it. Not in the secondary, anyway.
In their mission to find the best defensive backfield possible, the Steelers have rotated faces in and out over the years. That’s not a bad thing, the pros of adding better talent, corners and safeties who could thrive in their evolving man coverage scheme outweigh the negatives. But there are negatives. New faces, players in ascending roles leads to a simplified scheme to avoid confusion.
Go back to Keith Butler’s first game as DC in 2015. The confusion against the Patriots. Not getting aligned, not having enough guys on the field, totally forgetting to cover that little-known tight end named Rob Gronkowski.
That just comes with the territory. New names gets signed, drafted, whatever, and the defense has to reset. As the season moves along, players get comfortable, the scheme expands.
That won’t happen in 2020. For the first time in nearly a decade, Pittsburgh has the same core secondary returning. Joe Haden and Steven Nelson as outside corners, Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick at safety.
That “core four” hasn’t remained the same from the end of one season to the start of the next since 2011. Here’s the list of new faces, or returning ones elevated to much more prominent roles, year-by-year.
2019: Steven Nelson, Minkah Fitzpatrick
2018: Terrell Edmunds
2017: Joe Haden
2016: Sean Davis
2015: Antwon Blake
2014: Mike Mitchell
2013: Cortez Allen
2012: Keenan Lewis
Couple quick points of clarification. Since 2016, Davis and above, every face has been brand new. Before then, Blake replaced Brice McCain in 2015, Mitchell was a free agent signing in 2014, Allen played in 2012 but replaced the lost Keenan Lewis in 2013, while Lewis took over full-time in 2012 while William Gay spent a year hanging out in Arizona. 2010-2011 was the last time there was continuity with Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, and Bryan McFadden/Gay.
And I kept it simple and didn’t even include slot corners. Pittsburgh has the same returning this year too, the duo of Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton.
Aside from losing Artie Burns, you and I both know that wasn’t much of a loss, this secondary is unchanged. Even the depth, names like Justin Layne, Jordan Dangerfield, I’ll even toss in Marcus Allen, are all returning.
That’s huge for a defense that’s already one of football’s best. No longer will they have to adjust in-season, even as they had to do in 2019. Barring injury, the group can hit the ground running. That means a more varied, exotic scheme, one that can disguise and hold coverages pre-snap to offer a different post-snap look for the QB to figure out on the fly. That means better adjusting week-to-week, a defense that has more answers, can more easily add plays/concepts throughout the season and above all else,not worry about if the new guy is ready to do the job. Edmunds’ progress has been slow but he’s far from a liability and the rest of the group is excellent.
Can’t stress enough how important this is. The two big components for this secondary are here. Talent and experience. At some point in the mid 2010s, there was a decent amount of experience. But the talent sucked. The last few years, the front office has restocked talent but didn’t have the experience, either with Pittsburgh or in the NFL.
Both issues have been resolved. As good as the Steelers’ secondary was last year, and it was very good, it can be even better in 2020.