“Predicting the 53” is a series the Last Word On Sports football department will continue throughout the off-season to decipher which 53 players will make up the Pittsburgh Steelers final roster. This post will focus on the Steelers secondary, a group that was one of the best in the league last year after being among the worst in previous years. New additions Steven Nelson and Minkah Fitzpatrick helped turn the unit around. The entire Steelers secondary returns this year, so they will enter the season with sky-high expectations.
Predicting the 53: Pittsburgh Steelers Secondary
The cornerback duo of Joe Haden and Steven Nelson was one of the best in the NFL last season, and they will be holding it down together again this year. Haden finished 2019 with 17 passes defended and a team-high five interceptions. Quarterbacks completed just 53.7 percent of passes when targeting Haden with a passer rating of 66.5. Nelson didn’t stuff the stat sheet as Haden did, but he was arguably better in coverage. Though he only recorded one interception and eight pass defenses, Nelson allowed just 50 percent of passes that came his way to be completed. Most impressively, Nelson didn’t allow a touchdown all year, despite being targeted 74 times. Haden isn’t getting any younger, but it’s fun to watch this duo play together at a very high level.
Like the cornerbacks, there is zero doubt as to who will be the starting safeties for the Steelers in 2020. When Fitzpatrick was acquired after Week 2 of the 2019 season, he immediately helped transform the defense from average to elite. His stats were spectacular. In 14 games with the Steelers, Fitzpatrick had five interceptions, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, and a defensive touchdown. He was only targeted 25 times in those 14 games, as quarterbacks tried avoiding him completely. Joining Fitzpatrick is Terrell Edmunds, the consensus weak link of the Steelers starting defensive players. Edmunds has all the physical potential in the world but lacks the ball skills and tackling abilities to make big plays. In 31 career starts, Edmunds has recorded just one interception. In year three, he will look to build on his physical traits to prove worthy of the first-round draft pick the team used on him.
Key Depth Players
With the amount of sub-packages the team uses, there are two Steelers secondary players who will get a lot of playing time despite not being starters. The first is Mike Hilton, who is widely considered as one of the best nickel cornerbacks in the league. His 22 tackles for loss in the past three years leads the league among cornerbacks. Hilton gets much praise as a blitzer, but he’s solid in coverage in the slot as well. Cameron Sutton is the other rotational cornerback who will see many snaps this year. On 25 targets last season, Sutton allowed a passer rating of just 54.1. He is one of the most underrated players on the Steelers defense and is dependable in coverage both in the slot or on the outside. Considering the team’s salary cap situation, it’s likely that only one of these players will be with the Steelers in 2021. Thus, they’ll be competing for an extension in 2020.
The big problem with the Steelers secondary is that there is no dependable depth at the safety position. As long as they are healthy, it’s a safe assumption to make that Edmunds and Fitzpatrick will both play every snap of every game. With the roster in its current state, the team really doesn’t have a choice. If the team makes any moves in free agency before the season starts, signing safety depth would be the most likely scenario.
Second-year cornerback Justin Layne is a shoo-in to be the team’s number-five cornerback. The 2019 third-round pick didn’t play a snap on defense last year, but he was a key contributor on special teams. Pittsburgh knew Layne was a project when they drafted him, so they won’t be in a huge rush to get him on the field. With all the talent ahead of him at the position, they don’t need to be. If the team keeps six cornerbacks, undrafted rookie Trajan Bandy is likely the favorite for the sixth spot. The Miami product is small but physical, similar to Hilton. If Hilton isn’t brought back in 2021, Bandy could potentially be his replacement.
The safety depth will be composed of veteran safety Jordan Dangerfield and rookie Antoine Brooks Jr. Dangerfield is entering his fifth year with the team. In the past, he has seen limited roles on defense, though his main duties come on special teams. If necessary, it would be interesting to see if Dangerfield would be the team’s backup free safety, or if Hilton or Sutton would slide back into that role. Brooks will enter the year as the team’s backup strong safety. With his athleticism and physicality, the team might try to turn Brooks into a safety-linebacker hybrid player. To start the year, though, Brooks will likely just be a special teams contributor.
Cornerback (six): Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Mike Hilton, Cameron Sutton, Justin Layne, Trajan Bandy
Safety (four): Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds, Jordan Dangerfield, Antoine Brooks Jr.
Miss the cut: Marcus Allen (potential practice squad), Alexander Myres, Breon Borders, James Pierre, Arrion Springs, John Battle, Tyree Kinnel
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