DB Report Card: Steelers 2020 Secondary In Review

Steelers cornerbacks Cameron Sutton and Steven Nelson

During a season which began with much promise, including an 11-0 start, the best in Steelers history, Mike Tomlin’s squad lost steam in December, as has become too routine in recent seasons, finishing the year 12-4, and ultimately losing a home playoff game to the Cleveland Browns in spectacular fashion.  While it’s easy to point toward season ending injuries to a pair of elite defenders in Devin Bush and Bud Dupree, it’s equally important to note that Ben Roethlisberger failed to take care of the football down the stretch, posting a 90+ passer rating just once after Week 10, after posting such a figure in eight of the teams first nine games.

Nonetheless, the Steelers defense finished the season allowing just 19.5 points and 194.4 passing yards per game, both good for third best in the league, while simultaneously compiling 27 turnovers and 56 sacks, second and first in the league in each respective category.  Moreover, for those of us more into advanced stats, the defense also finished allowing opposing passers to post a rating of just 79, best in the league, simultaneously finishing first in Football Outsiders DVOA stat.

All that being said, the Steelers failed to win an opening round playoff game at home, making it tough to categorize the season as anything other than a disappointment, particularly when considering that they haven’t secured a playoff win since the 2016 season.  Although the secondary struggled to contain explosive plays early in the season, their play steadied throughout the season, with Minkah Fitzpatrick serving as the lynchpin to a Cover 1, pressure centric defensive scheme.

While improving the offensive line and repairing a running game which finished dead last in the league are sure to be the chief concerns of the offseason, uncertainty looms in the future of their elite secondary.  The teams two top sub package defenders, Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton are set to be unrestricted free agents this offseason, and with limited cap space, retaining both players will likely prove virtually impossible.  Moreover, some have speculated that Joe Haden, who has seen a career resurgence in Pittsburgh since joining the team in 2017, could become a cap casualty, further complicating the future of a unit which helped hold opposing offenses to a 76.7 quarterback rating(1st) and a 37.4% 3rd down conversion rate(5th).

Today, we’re offering an overall look and analysis of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2020 secondary.

Joe Haden- B+

In his 11th NFL season, his fourth such in Pittsburgh, Joe Haden played in 14 games, compiling 52 tackles, two tackles for a loss, 12 pass breakups, and two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, before ultimately having his season cut short due to a positive Covid-19 diagnosis.  Overall, Haden, who entered the season at age 31, continued to provide solid play for the Steelers opposite of Steven Nelson, helping the Steelers succeed in their staple, single high concepts.  While Haden certainly appeared to lose a step in the long speed department, he continues to be able to combine his advanced football IQ with flawless technique to make plays on the football, leading the team in pass breakups for a second season in a row, all while allowing a healthy 83.2 passer rating when targeted.

Overwhelmingly apparent, Haden continues to excel in trap coverage schemes, where he disguises underneath zone assignments before undercutting out breaking routes to make game changing plays, just as we saw with his Week 12 pick six.  Thus, while Haden may no longer possess the ability to shadow elite receivers in man coverage throughout games, he is still able to serve as a positive force in the Steelers secondary, particularly behind a pass rush which forces quarterbacks to get the ball out quickly.  Moreover, Haden continued to serve as an upper echelon run defender from his boundary cornerback position, consistently filling off the edge and sacrificing his body to make key plays in the run game.  Hence, with only seven million dollars on the table in cap savings in the event of Joe Haden being released, I tend to lean towards the belief that the Steelers will bring him back as a starter in 2021, where he will be 32 years old and in the final year of his contract.

While it’s tough to predict Haden’s future in Pittsburgh beyond the 2021 season, he, along with Minkah Fitzpatrick and Steven Nelson, have helped the Steelers craft a championship level pass defense, and he deserves credit for that.  Moreover, as we saw particularly in the Week 10 Bengals game, Haden still possessed the ability to shut receivers down situationally, as he was particularly good in third down and red zone situations throughout the season.  Thus, while many Steelers fans appear ready to prematurely force Haden out the door for minute cap savings, it’s hard to argue that the seven million dollars allotted could be enough to replace Haden’s high level of production over the past two seasons.  Moreover, while Haden’s play was far from All-Pro level during the 2020 season, a cornerback room headlined by Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, and Cameron Sutton would allow the team flexibility to continue fielding an elite defense in the upcoming season.

Steven Nelson- B+

In his sixth NFL campaign, his second of which came in Pittsburgh, Steven Nelson played 15 games, finishing with 48 tackles, two tackles for a loss, nine pass breakups, two interceptions, and a fumble recovery.  Although his second season in a Steelers uniform didn’t quite measure up to his first, one in which he didn’t allow a single touchdown all season, Nelson put together a solid 2020 campaign, improving as the season progressed, and ending the season as the best cornerback on the roster.  Nelson improved in his ball production, adding more pass breakups and interceptions than he recorded in 2019, while continuing to provide sticky coverage out of press man alignments, where he is at his best, ultimately finishing the season with a healthy 82.7 passer rating allowed.  Moreover, like his counterpart Joe Haden, Nelson tackled extremely well on the edge, shutting down screens and swing passes with physicality, while tackling the catch admirably throughout most of the season.

One area where Nelson continued to struggle throughout the season was on shallow in breaking routes, including slants and shallow crossers, where receivers were able to cross his face and gain separation with consistency.  Nonetheless, no cornerback is perfect, and I strongly believe that Nelson has been the team’s best man cover corner over the past two seasons.  Given that Nelson is relatively young, as he is set to enter the 2021 season at just 28 years of age, it’s not unthinkable to think that Pittsburgh could potentially extend the cornerback either this offseason or before he hits free agency in the 2022 offseason.  Although Nelson came to Pittsburgh as a perceived “feast or famine” coverage player, a lesser version of Baltimore’s Marcus Peters, he has done well to reverse the script and provide steady coverage, making up for his lack of turnover creation by consistently limiting opposing receivers.

Entering 2021, with Joe Haden a full year older, it’s safe to assume that Nelson is set to assume the role as the team’s clear cut number one cornerback, as he is far less exploitable in the long speed department than his running mate.  Through watching the All-22, it becomes clear that Nelson is an unsung hero of this elite defensive unit, as he helped erase talented receivers like T.Y. Hilton and Odell Beckham Jr. throughout the season.  One change that I don’t anticipate, but believe could help Pittsburgh, is traveling their cornerbacks more in the 2021 season, particularly given that Nelson displayed proficiency while filling in for Mike Hilton in his slot reps this season.  While there’s certainly an argument to be had for disguising coverages, I’d argue that it is counterproductive to tie over $15 million in salary to a pair of talented cornerbacks, only to have them relegated to locking down running backs and tight ends while Robert Spillane is left to challenge a teams top receiving option.

Minkah Fitzpatrick- A

In his third NFL season, and first full season in Pittsburgh, Minkah Fitzpatrick played all 16 games, compiling 79 tackles, a tackle for a loss, 11 pass breakups, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, four interceptions, and a pick six en route to earning his second consecutive first team All-Pro nomination.  Coming off a 2020 campaign which set lofty standards for his future in Pittsburgh, Minkah answered the bell resoundingly, becoming the first Steelers player to receive two first team All-Pro nominations under the age of 25.  Moreover, while the addition of Teryl Austin can certainly not be discounted, Minkah’s addition has helped the team reinvent its defensive identity, marrying pressure and coverage to force timely turnovers, 18 of which came via interception, led by Minkah’s team leading four.

It was also refreshing to see the Steelers fulfill their commitment to move Minkah around more in the 2020 season, where he continued to flourish as a post safety, but simultaneously wreaked havoc as a robber defender in their Cover 1 schemes, where he consistently fooled quarterbacks with disguised alignments and delayed rotations.  Minkah finished the season allowing a meager 19.2 passer rating when targeted, further displaying his role in closing off the middle of the field in the Steelers scheme.  Although we only saw it sparingly, I was thoroughly encouraged with Minkah’s limited work as a blitzer, an area where the team could expand his usage to help offset a potential loss of Mike Hilton.  Outside of limited miscues, Minkah continued to flourish as a tackler from his post safety spot as the season progressed, providing sound run fills and punishing runners with physicality at the second level.

Along with T.J. Watt and Devin Bush, Minkah is one of the team’s key building blocks defensively moving forward, and will likely sign a large dollar extension with the team next offseason, potentially becoming the highest paid safety in the league in the process.  Thus, although the teams defensive personnel will certainly see change over the next few seasons, the presence of Minkah’s elite play from the post safety position, in tandem with a top level pass rush, should keep the team near the top half of the league in defensive statistics, including turnovers, over the better half of the next decade.

Terrell Edmunds- B

In his third NFL campaign, Terrell Edmunds posted his best season to date, playing 15 games while finishing with 68 tackles, a sack, a tackle for a loss, a quarterback hit, eight pass breakups, and two interceptions.  Although being one of the more maligned players by the fanbase, Edmunds improved every facet of his game ahead of the 2020 season, and was the underrated key to unlocking Minkah’s full potential.  As far as strong safety’s go, Edmunds is as good as they come in man coverage, where he flourished as the cap defender in Nickel blitz situations this past season.  Moreover, Edmunds displayed great presence as both a “sky” defender in Cover 3 schemes, as well as in his work as the post safety in single high sets, finishing the season having allowed just a 54.2 passer rating when targeted.

After having trouble in containing tight ends for the better part of the past decade, Edmunds’ improvement helped the Steelers limit production from opposing tight ends outside of their Week 13 game against Washington’s Logan Thomas.  As a run defender, Edmunds played very well in the box, using his speed, strength, and physicality to shed blocks and fill gaps with sound tackling.  In space Edmunds continued to struggle at times as a tackler, never more apparent than a brutal missed tackle on Marquise Brown which nearly cost the Steelers a Week 12 victory, but overall, he was solid in that department.

The team certainly has an interesting decision to make with Edmunds upcoming fifth year option this offseason, but if his year to year improvement is any indication, he would seem to be a guy you would want in Pittsburgh long term.  Heading into 2021, I would like to see Edmunds work toward improving as a blitzer, as the team will need to get some increased production from other defensive backs in the pass rush department if Mike Hilton walks this offseason.  Nonetheless, Edmunds ascension in 2020 places him and Minkah among the NFL’s elite safety duos, and if he continues on his trajectory in the upcoming season, he could further unlock the potential of this talented secondary.

Mike Hilton- B+

In his fourth NFL season, and quite potentially his last in Pittsburgh, Mike Hilton posted a career year, playing only 12 games, but compiling 51 tackles, eight tackles for a loss, five quarterback hits, three sacks, a forced fumble, seven pass deflections, and a career high three interceptions.  Although he missed four games due to injury, Hilton’s fourth season was arguably his best to date, continuing to impact the game both as a blitzer and run defender, as well as in coverage where he was elite in zone coverage assignments, finishing the season allowing just 10 receptions, no touchdowns, securing three interceptions, all while posting a rating of 17.3 on 25 targets.  Nonetheless, I’d be remiss not to mention the wildcard game, where Hilton struggled in his matchups with Jarvis Landry en route to allowing 66 yards and a touchdown in coverage.

Film showed an expansion of Hilton’s role, where he served as the teams free safety in Cover 3 invert sets, a role in which he flourished in, including securing a game clinching interception in Week 3 against Houston.  As the team is unlikely to be able to retain Hilton due to cap restraints, it’s important to view how his loss could hurt this defense moving into 2021.  First off, Hilton’s elite run defense from the slot position allowed the Steelers to stay in Nickel, even on obvious running downs, a situation which becomes much more murky with Cameron Sutton, his potential replacement.  Moreover, few defensive backs in the NFL possess Hilton’s timing and instincts as a blitzer, where he served as a key component to the Steelers vaunted pass rush, which led the league in both sacks and pressure rate.

Hence, while resigning Cam Sutton could go a long way in replacing Hilton’s passing down snaps, potentially even providing improvements in pass coverage, the team will likely need to look toward the draft to replace Hilton’s production in the run game.  If not for the draft, Antoine Brooks Jr. is an interesting name that could see increased snaps in a “Big Nickel” type role, as we saw a preview of in the Bengals game.  Regardless, Hilton, standing at just 5’9” 183 pounds, recorded 9.5 sacks, 30 tackles for a loss, and 23 quarterback hits during his tenure in Pittsburgh, redefining what we have come to expect from the position, and I will be rooting for him regardless of where he ends up this offseason(outside of Baltimore, Cleveland, or Cincinnati of course).

Cameron Sutton- B+

In his fourth NFL season, Cameron Sutton played all 16 games, posting a career year while finishing with 30 tackles, a tackle for a loss, a sack, three forced fumbles, eight pass deflections, and an interception.  As I outlined in an article during training camp, I believed Sutton was in line for an increased role in the 2020 season, and he certainly flourished in his increased snap count.  Perhaps more than anything else, Sutton’s three forced fumbles showed his instincts as a playmaker, forcing fumbles both with the “peanut punch” as well as the traditional “rake” technique.  Moreover, Sutton’s versatility to fill a variety of roles, including Nickel, Dime Linebacker, Safety, and boundary cornerback display his potential to serve as a swiss army knife for this team moving forward if he is indeed retained this offseason.

Personally, I would make Sutton the top priority this offseason, as he is one of the team’s few examples of draft success at the position over the past decade.  Moreover, given Haden’s age, Sutton could potentially move into a role where he starts across from Steven Nelson in base, while simultaneously kicking inside when the team deploys Nickel sets.  Overall, Sutton posted a healthy 78.1 passer rating when targeted, allowing one touchdown, yet simultaneously securing one interception and a career high eight pass breakups.  If retained, Sutton will need to improve as a blitzer, where he would surely see his usage increased, although Sutton did display encouraging traits in that department, particularly in the Sunday Night game against Buffalo.

While Sutton displayed minor technical issues in man coverage assignments both out of the slot and the outside, his underneath zone coverage improved drastically as the season continued, where he progressed to gain proper depth and force checkdown throws before making technically sound tackles.  As he should almost certainly be the cheaper option than his counterpart Mike Hilton, it is reasonable to assume that Sutton could be back with the team in 2021, as the loss of his contributions would limit the team in their ability to match teams out of sub packages.

Jordan Dangerfield- B

In his fifth NFL season, Jordan Dangerfield was named the Steelers special teams captain, playing 15 games while compiling 10 tackles, and providing a steadying presence to a young special teams unit which showed improvements.  While Dangerfield’s numbers don’t jump off the page, he shows up on tape nearly every play displaying ideal physicality, and serving as a tone setter on various special teams units.  Moreover, serving as the personal protector on the punt unit, it’s a reflection on his performance, both mentally and physically, that the Steelers did not surrender a blocked punt on the season.

While his status entering the 2021 season is far from certain, if Pittsburgh can retain Dangerfield at close to the veteran minimum, it would seem to be a no brainer for a veteran leader of the young special teams core.  Regardless, Dangerfield has lasted five seasons in Pittsburgh playing almost exclusively as a special teamer, a testament to the physicality and hair on fire mentality that he brings to the game.

Sean Davis- C

In his fifth NFL season, Sean Davis returned to Pittsburgh in a primarily special teams role, playing all 16 games while finishing the season with 12 tackles, a pass deflection, and a fumble recovery, yet struggling to show consistent effort at times.  Although his Week 17 performance as a starting safety was encouraging, and will likely provide optimism for his next opportunity, I was thoroughly disappointed with Davis’s performance as a special teamer during the 2020 season.

Davis often failed to show desirable effort or physicality in his role on the punt and kick return units.  On the punt unit, where Davis served at the wing spot, he often opted for cut blocks rather than squaring his man up, which led to some mixed results, and more often than not prevented him from getting downfield in coverage.  Things were even worse on the kick return unit, where in the Steelers wildcard game, Davis allowed his man to come free to secure a tackle on three separate occasions, appearing generally disinterested in holding his blocks.  Moving toward 2021, I’d like to see the Steelers fill Davis roster spot with a younger player, and one more enthusiastic about an opportunity to compete on special teams.

Justin Layne- C+

In his second NFL season, Justin Layne saw his role increase, playing in all 16 games while filling in sub package snaps due to injuries, and ultimately finishing the season with 22 tackles, yet displaying deficiencies with hip mobility as well as understanding of zone coverage responsibilities.  Overall, Layne actually put some solid special teams reps together on tape, particularly as a gunner, where he would routinely get downfield to force fair catches and limit return yardage.  As a cornerback, the results were much more of a mixed bag, with Layne being demoted from his Dime package role twice throughout the season, the second time in favor of undrafted free agent James Pierre.

While it’d be foolish to throw Justin Layne out with the bathwater after struggles in his first meaningful reps, he will need to work extensively this offseason to improve his hip mobility, as well as gain a better understanding of his zone coverage responsibilities.  Layne generally appeared tentative in his limited snaps, ultimately posting an 87.9 passer rating on his limited targets, but failing to make any plays on the football as well.  Personally, I believe that Layne needs to begin trusting what his eyes are showing him, as he displayed far too much hesitation in decision making, which ultimately limited his ability to contribute, although that is not out of the ordinary for a young player.

James Pierre- B+

In his rookie season, James Pierre played in all 16 games, serving in a primarily special teams role before ultimately garnering defensive snaps in the Steelers wildcard matchup, finishing the season with nine tackles, and an impressive post season pass breakup.  From early on in the season, Pierre stood out on tape as a special teamer, displaying an unrelenting effort, and contributing immediately both as a gunner and on the kickoff unit.  Although Pierre had his struggles as a jammer on the punt return unit, they were rarely for lack of effort or physicality, but rather minor technical issues that could be cleaned up with more practice reps.

As the season progressed, Justin Layne’s struggles opened the door for Pierre to play extensively on defense in the teams final two games, including a playoff game where he appeared poised, securing an impressive pass breakup.  Although he may not possess the length of pedigree of his peer Justin Layne, Pierre actually appeared much more fluid and patient in coverage than his counterpart, appearing comfortable in both press and off coverage assignments.  Moving into 2021, Pierre should return to the roster at minimum as a special teamer, and be presented with the opportunity to compete for the a role in the teams Dime package with Justin Layne, and potentially a rookie that the team selects in the upcoming 2021 draft.

Antoine Brooks Jr. – INC

In his rookie season, Antoine Brooks Jr. dressed in four games, playing sparingly outside of a Week 10 contest against the Bengals in which he garnered extensive sub package work in Mike Hilton’s absence, ultimately finishing the season with two tackles.  While it’s tough to grade Brooks Jr. in his limited work, outside of the 28 defensive snaps he played in Week 10 against Cincinnati, he could certainly factor into the team’s plans in replacing Mike Hilton’s contributions.

In his limited snaps, Brooks Jr. appeared generally comfortable in man coverage, although his college tape suggests that the Steelers could look to use him out of the slot as a blitzer and run defender.  Moreover, Brooks Jr. is another name that could be in competition for Dime package snaps, as he could likely fit in as the Dimebacker, with Cam Sutton in the slot, Joe Haden at a boundary spot, and Steven Nelson at the other.  Thus, including only currently rostered players, Antoine Brooks Jr., James Pierre, and Justin Layne will all compete for Dime snaps, although the addition of a rookie into the mix is a likely possibility.

Overall: B+ 

Consequently, it’s tough to fault the performance of a secondary which helped the team finish top three in passing yardage allowed, tied for the league lead in interceptions, and helped force numerous other takeaways which placed the team second in that category.  Nonetheless, many would point toward the teams propensity to give up chunk plays, as well as occasions where they surrendered third and long conversions as areas for improvement, which I would agree are valid criticisms.  Moreover, the units lack of turnover creation down the stretch certainly contributed directly to their collapse, as noted by our own Alex Kozora, the Steelers finished the year 11-1 in games where they created at least one turnover, and 1-4 in games with no takeaways forced by the defense.

However, many could correctly point to an offense which finished 25th in yards per game and dead last in rushing yardage per game, as the catalyst for their collapse, as ideally, an offense should not be solely reliant on their defense creating short fields.  Thus, moving into the offseason, the Steelers front office must look to revamp the offensive line and running game in the first few rounds of the draft, as the little remaining cash should be spent to retain key free agents such as Cam Sutton.

An improved running game could allow the Steelers offense to impose their will on opponents, control time of possession, convert in short yardage situations, and play to the strengths of an elite defense.  Moreover, as many fans have been demanding for years, it would be encouraging to see Matt Canada implement a nuanced play action game to create openings downfield in the passing game, as the Steelers possess a plethora of receivers who can easily create separation.

Thus, while, this unit is sure to look differently next season, with the likely loss of Mike Hilton, potential loss of Joe Haden, albeit unlikely, and the shuffling of some backups, I still maintain the utmost confidence that the Steelers can continue to field an elite pass defense in 2021.  A key to unlocking the pass defense, and a large reason we saw the defense exposed in the playoffs, is keeping teams behind schedule with sound run defense, an area where the team limped to the finish following key losses to Devin Bush and Bud Dupree.

Regardless, the continued ascension of Cam Sutton and Terrell Edmunds will be crucial to the unit’s performance in 2021, while whoever steps up out of James Pierre, Justin Layne, Antoine Brooks Jr., or a rookie, will need to work together to replace Hilton’s snaps, Moneyball style.  Subsequently, although the defense’s performance in the Wildcard game was wildly disappointing, an improved offense in 2021, particularly one which emphasizes scoring early in games, could allow the defense to continue to play at an elite level, although a continued emphasis on sacks and forcing turnovers will be of paramount importance.

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