The Pittsburgh Steelers struggled for a while to replenish their secondary in the absence of the likes of Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor. It didn’t help that they let Keenan Lewis walk in free agency, and that Cortez Allen didn’t work out, partly due to health. Things finally came together in 2019 with the investments in Steven Nelson at cornerback and Minkah Fitzpatrick at safety.
Almost overnight, they became one of the best secondaries in the league, with Joe Haden on the other side of Nelson, the versatile Mike Hilton in the slot, and Terrell Edmunds pairing with Fitzpatrick as an increasingly stable presence.
While they still have most of the band together, the losses of Hilton and Nelson this offseason were a pair of major blows to the secondary, and it’s unclear how they rebound. Cameron Sutton is primed to take on a bigger role, but they still must determine a viable fifth contributor.
The long and short of it is that a decline is reasonably anticipated, and that’s reflected in Pro Football Focus’ secondary rankings, in which the Steelers fall outside of the top 10, though not far from it. They ultimately place 12th in the list, with Ben Linsey writing the following:
The Steelers will be relying on several younger players to step up following the offseason losses of Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton in the secondary. Cameron Sutton is one of them, and he will likely start opposite Joe Haden at cornerback. Sutton has ranked in the 94th percentile in coverage grade on a per-snap basis among all cornerbacks since 2019, though much of that grade stems from his work in the slot.
Minkah Fitzpatrick has been excellent since taking over as the team’s free safety in 2019. No defense has allowed fewer completions on passes 20-plus yards downfield than Pittsburgh (32) over that stretch.
The Steelers have four answers. But any secondary needs at least five, and typically six or seven. They have candidates, like 2019 third-round pick Justin Layne, second-year James Pierre, veteran free agent Arthur Maulet, and a series of late-round or college free agent rookies in Shakur Brown, Tre Norwood, Mike Gilbert, and Lamont Wade.
Barring the addition of yet another outside candidate—and they have explored the option, recently hosting rehabbing free agent safety Malik Hooker—one of these names is going to have to demonstrate the ability to be the fifth defensive back.
Layne logged over 100 defensive snaps during his second season a year ago. Pierre also played a handful on defense at the end of last season, including logging time over Layne in the postseason while Haden was out with COVID-19.
Both Norwood and Brown come into the league having shown takeaway ability last year, which is always a notch in their favor. Maulet, in the meanwhile, is the most veteran option, having logged hundreds of snaps at safety and the slot, most recently for the New York Jets over the past two years.