2022 South Side Questions: How Will Steelers’ Secondary Hold Up Against Bengals’ Passing Game?

The Steelers are at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, informally known as the South Side facility, now into the regular season. It’s where they otherwise train all year round, and the facility that Burt Lauten insists everybody refers to by its full name.

There are still unsettled questions that need answering, even deep into the regular season. They entered the process with questions in the starting lineup, in scheme, and elsewhere, but new problems always arise that need to be resolved.

Even questions about who’s starting and when may not have satisfactory answers in their finality, as midseason changes are certainly quite possible, for some positions more than others. We’re also feeling out how the new coordinator posts—or posts in new contexts—end up playing out.

There’s never any shortage of questions when it comes to football, and we’ll be discussing them here on a daily basis for the community to “talk amongst yourselves”, as Linda Richman might say on Coffee Talk.

Question: How will the Steelers’ secondary hold up against the Bengals’ passing game?

Any discussion about a pass defense cannot of course be limited to just the secondary. Rushing the passer and putting pressure on him, not giving him time to make throws, is as critical a component of coverage as any other.

The Steelers, though, have pretty consistently had one of the better pass rushes in the league for the past five years. The bigger question when they go up against a team like the Cincinnati Bengals is whether or not they have the personnel and schemes to cover a trio of wide receivers like Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd and manage to survive.

That group has only been together for one year, but they got the better of Pittsburgh twice during that time, in significant fashion. Now the Steelers have a trio of Cameron Sutton, Ahkello Witherspoon, and Levi Wallace.

Sutton was in the lineup last year, but Joe Haden is now gone. Witherspoon spent most of last season on the bench, but when he got an opportunity to play, ended up being graded as one of the better coverage cornerbacks by QB rating allowed. Wallace comes over from Buffalo and is expected to play on the outside in the nickel, but Arthur Maulet and Tre Norwood may also see time as the fifth defensive back.

And so I ask again: do these guys have what it takes to hold down these receivers and keep the score manageable enough for the Steelers to sneak out a victory on the road in the season opener? Do they have the coverage skills at linebacker also to handle tight ends Hayden Hurst and Drew Sample, and running back Joe Mixon?

This is likely one of the best passing games the Steelers are going to see all season, so it’s certainly going to provide a good test. Given that it’s the first game of the year, good communication is going to be paramount in this reformulated group. If they do struggle, then the question will be how they respond when they play the Bengals again.

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