With the Pittsburgh Steelers opening the regular season against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, much was made in the national media about how the pass defense may struggle against the league’s third-ranked passing offense in 2020 in terms of passing yardage and TDs. The losses of CBs Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton in the secondary have left uncertainty as to how Pittsburgh will operate in their sub packages and whether projected starting CB Cam Sutton would kick inside to the nickel with second year James Pierre rolling out to play opposite of Joe Haden on the boundary.
This has been widely accepted as the most likely outcome, but there are a variety of different ways Pittsburgh could handle the defensive back assignments.
Considering how well the defense played on Sunday, I do expect that the play of the secondary will still improve from Week 1 and continue to improve throughout the season for multiple reasons. First, we look at the schedule. Buffalo presents a challenge to keep contained for four quarters. However, after their game at Buffalo, Pittsburgh then plays the Las Vegas Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals before facing off with the Green Bay Packers Week 4.
On paper, the passing attacks of the Raiders and Bengals, respectively don’t present as much of a threat as the Bills or Packers, allowing Pittsburgh to settle in after their Week 1 matchup and make necessary adjustments before attempting to hold Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ passing attack at bay.
Another key point to consider is the players the Steelers recently acquired via trade and off the street to contribute on the back end. The team signed S Karl Joseph who had been released by the Raiders during final cutdowns to their practice squad with the intention to promote him to the active roster once he completes COVID protocols.
Pittsburgh also pulled off a surprise trade in the 11th hour of the preseason, acquiring Seattle Seahawks CB Ahkello Witherspoon for a 2023 fifth-round pick. Joseph has experience lining up at various spots in the defensive backfield, playing as a single-high safety, box safety, split zone safety, up on the LOS, and even in the nickel and dime against the slot receiver.
Meanwhile Witherspoon is a quintessential boundary corner that excels in press man coverage situations thanks to his length, speed, and ability to contest jump balls in the red zone. These two defenders have had stints being respectable starters for their previous teams and as they get up to speed with the defensive scheme and acclimate to their respective roles they are to play for the Pittsburgh defense, Joseph and Witherspoon look to add much needed depth and experience to the secondary, allowing Pittsburgh to move pieces around on the backend to have the best lineup possible to play against opposing offenses.
Pittsburgh has tended to struggle early in the season with new pieces in the secondary when going back to their opener against the New England Patriots as an example two years ago. Things might get off to the same start in 2021 but given the influx of added talent to the secondary along with the fortifications in the front seven over the course of the offseason, Pittsburgh’s defense should shape up well down the stretch as a unit that should fall off too much from the 2020 unit.
This isn’t to say that Pittsburgh’s secondary is at the same level talent-wise as say the Denver Broncos, there is no denying that they are in a better spot today than they were a few weeks ago.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ secondary heading into the 2021 season? Do you think that they have done enough to add talent to the backend of the defensive to be successful at defending the pass? Do you see the play of the secondary improving over time with the new guys getting more acclimated to the system and guys settling in for their roles? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!