It wasn’t so long ago that the Pittsburgh Steelers were regarded as having one of the worst secondaries in the league, at least in terms of talent. They may not have been routinely finishing toward the bottom of the league in conventional passing defense statistics, but they sure weren’t having the kind of impact you want to see.
The 2019 season changed that dramatically, and it’s undeniable that personnel had a lot to do with that, as the organization was able to add two legitimately high-quality starters to the defensive backfield. First, it was cornerback Steven Nelson, brought in the start opposite Joe Haden, on a three-year, $25.5 million free agent contract. During the season, after Sean Davis was injured, they replaced him with new free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick via trade, and he went on to finish the season as a first-team All-Pro.
The pairing of Nelson and Haden gave the Steelers their most balanced pairing at the cornerback position in more than half a decade, arguably since 2012 when Keenan Lewis was still here. Then when Fitzpatrick came in, he made an immediate impact, not just with splash plays, but with how the entire defense performed.
That’s why Pro Football Focus recently ranked the Steelers as a top-five secondary heading into the 2020 season, a thought that probably seemed unimaginable a year ago. In fact, they ranked fourth overall, behind only the Baltimore Ravens, the Los Angeles Chargers, and the New England Patriots, though the Patriots just lost Patrick Chung earlier this week.
Steve Palazzolo writes that “the Pittsburgh Steelers are cornering the market on solid, if unspectacular, defensive backs”, which is a pretty skillful backhanded compliment, proceeding to go into some of the nuances of Haden’s and Nelson advanced statistics. He also noted that Mike Hilton had the third-best coverage grade among slot corners over the past two years.
“Terrell Edmunds has been a disappointment as a shock first-round selection in 2018, but he has at least been consistently average in two years of play”, he wrote of everybody’s favorite member of the secondary—not something that any of us didn’t already know. “He doesn’t look like he will be a problem player in a good secondary”. I’ll take it, for now.
While there was the expected praise of Fitzpatrick, Palazzolo did offer some qualifiers. “He still needs to show he can be a consistently dominant force and not just ride the optimism caused by that brief stretch of elite play”, he wrote. “He has certainly yet to be given a clear and stable role in his young NFL career, so there is legitimate hope we might see him raise his game in 2020 and eliminate that inconsistency to become one of the better players in the league at his position”.
When you add a top-five pass rush from the likes of T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, Bud Dupree, and Stephon Tuitt, it also makes the secondary’s job a lot easier, with mutually beneficial results. As one hands washes the other, so do both get clean.