The Pittsburgh Steelers had one of the best defensive backfields in the league during the 2019 season after replenishing it with talent, signing cornerback Steven Nelson in free agency and then acquiring safety Minkah Fitzpatrick via trade two games into the year.
Over the course of the next 15 weeks, they gelled into one of the top groups in the NFL, with Fitzpatrick and Haden both receiving some post-season recognition. Each of them recorded five interceptions individually on the season. The secondary as a whole came down with 13 interceptions on the year.
And the wide receivers that they face in practice come away consistently impressed, including James Washington, who talked about his teammates with Clint Stoerner on Thursday for an interview on the host’s podcast.
“That secondary is stout, as far as Steve Nelson, Joe, Terrell, and Minkah Fitzpatrick”, he said. “I mean, they’re all smart guys, and the thing about all of them, they all just worked together for the past two or three years, they all kind of know each other, and their chemistry’s real tight. You know if the ball is in the air one of them is gonna go get it if the receiver don’t”.
So far, only one of them has managed an interception through the first two games, that being Haden, coming down with a pick of Jeff Driskel off of a tipped pass, but they have contributed collectively in other ways, including three sacks, two by Mike Hilton and one by Terrell Edmunds.
Overall, the secondary perhaps hasn’t performed to the exacting high standards that it set for itself last year. Fitzpatrick, for example, hasn’t really been the difference-making free safety that he was in the middle of last season for this unit. But it’s still early in the season as well.
There was also the odd aberration of six defensive penalties on Sunday that allowed the Broncos to continue extending drives, something I don’t imagine will be repeated. It also helps opposing offenses to move the ball against a defense that is playing with a lead, as they take more risks knowing that they can afford it.
What we do know is that the Steelers haven’t had a pair of cornerbacks who can cover one-on-one the way Haden and Nelson can in a while, and it has clearly affected not only the quality of their defensive effort, but also the sorts of things that they are capable of running as a defense because of the skill set that those two offer. Not to mention the influence of Fitzpatrick on the whole thing over the top.