There is a favorite commercial of mine that's all over the television airwaves: a group of people are in a setting similar to a twelve-step group and a guy chimes in that before he knew it, he was telling people “defense wins championships”; a lady pipes in and says, “well, it does.” The Pittsburgh Steelers had some solid performances from their defense in 2017, but there were some areas of improvement that needed to be addressed before the 2018 NFL regular season kicks off. One of the most serious areas was in their defensive backfield, specifically at the safety position.
I had previously written that the Steelers lacked a certain level of spark, intensity, and aggressiveness at the safety position. I can’t help but admit that I am pleased that the front office and coaching staff noticed the same thing and used the NFL Draft and free agency to address that. True, offseason rosters are a fluid thing and not everyone will make the final cut to a league-mandated 53-man roster, but the Steelers have guys in play that could elevate their defensive prowess to the next level this upcoming season.
The Steelers parted ways with Robert Golden (who signed with the Kansas City Chiefs) and Mike Mitchell during the opening of the free agency period. After the Draft, the team released J.J. Wilcox as well, making it clear that Pittsburgh was ready to rebuild the safety position.
From early appearances, it seems the Steelers are prepared to go in a direction that hints at more of a hybrid defense, utilizing more nickel and dime packages outside of their 3-4 base. Sean Davis, in his third year, has already been prepared to be available to play at both free and strong safety as needed.
With Morgan Burnett (formerly with the Green Bay Packers) and Nat Berhe (formerly with the New York Giants), the Steelers added veteran depth. Malik Golden and Jordan Dangerfield have very limited NFL experience and will compete with the Steelers’ 2018 number one draft pick Terrell Edmunds and fellow rookie Marcus Allen for a spot on the final roster.
What is interesting about who the Steelers have on their current roster is that each player has had moments where they showed a high level of intensity on the field and an ability to create turnovers. The Steelers were not high in turnover ratio in 2017 (+2). The team grabbed 16 interceptions but were unable to convert a single pick into a defensive touchdown. This is an area where Pittsburgh could absolutely benefit from a revitalization.
Last season, Davis led the team (tied with Ryan Shazier) with three interceptions for 76 return yards (25.3 yards per INT), with his longest going for 41 yards. Wilcox and (Robert) Golden grabbed just one interception apiece - and the remaining picks were from Mike Hilton, Vince Williams, Artie Burns, T.J. Watt, Coty Sensabaugh, Joe Haden, and William Gay.
The Steelers like to keep their roster deep with defensive backs and in 2018 they look to carry five safeties. Davis, Burnett, and Berhe look to be early locks for the final 53, even if head coach Mike Tomlin likes to reiterate that anything could happen and every position is up for grabs. Dangerfield and (Malik) Golden are very likely headed to the practice squad, or potential release, if Edmunds and Allen both step up in rookie mini-camp, OTAs and training camp.
If defense wins championships (and it does), the Steelers certainly made an upgrade to a position where at least a couple of players could fit into a safety/linebacker hybrid role – and as has been suggested previously here at SCU, take some of the pressure off of the middle linebackers who will be without Shazier in 2018. They'll have safeties who are matched up better against larger, quicker, more-versatile NFL-level tight ends and quick slant receivers. They’ll also add some good special teams coverage players who could give Danny Smith and his squad a boost in pinning opponents deep. What makes the new group of safeties most intriguing, however, is their potential to not only be leaner and meaner, but help push the Steelers defense to a new level of dominance.