The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Dick LeBeau defense called for a certain type of cornerback to be able to run effective. You needed cornerbacks with their eyes forward who were capable of playing the run in order to accommodate for the zone blitz, for example, and generally, that prioritized more fundamentally sound, physical players over those with an emphasis on ball skills.
The team’s cornerback profile changed pretty immediately, however, as soon as they moved on from LeBeau and promoted Keith Butler to defensive coordinator, with former Tampa 2 disciple Mike Tomlin sticking his thumb in as well. They immediately drafted Senquez Golson in the second round as a strikingly bad poster boy for their new-look boundary defender.
While that particularly pick didn’t pan out, they have continued to address the defensive backfield by seeking players with ball skills, even in their rookie free agents. This year, they drafted or signed two players who picked off five passes last year, including seventh-round defensive back Tre Norwood, who talked to reporters yesterday after the opening day of rookie minicamp practice about how taking the ball away was a point of focus in his game.
“As a player, that’s something that I pride myself on. That’s something that was a strong point for us with [Sooners defensive coordinator Alex] Grinch back in school, so that’s something that I’m definitely carrying over”, he said.
“The turnover margin is a key part to winning the game, so being able to go out there and make those plays on the ball, whether it’s an interception, a forced fumble, any one of those type of things, those are huge. That’s something that I see myself as, a guy that can go out there and be a playmaker when the ball’s in the air”.
The Steelers’ change in philosophy just so happened to coincide with a dramatic lull in the defense’s ability to produce splash plays, including interceptions, but through steady investment and recalibration, they have slowly but surely turned that around, and have become one of the league’s best playmaking units.
They have recorded more interceptions than any other team over the course of the past two seasons with 38 in total over that span, for example, but they have lost two starting cornerbacks from that roster in Steven Nelson and, in the slot, Mike Hilton.
Cameron Sutton will be asked to shoulder much of the load, but they will have to spend the Summer figuring out who their third defender will be. Could it be Justin Layne, or James Pierre? Could it even be Norwood, or college free agent Shakur Brown? Crazier things have happened.