Steelers tweak secondary before opener


The Steelers will go into their first game against New England with a slightly different secondary than many of us had anticipated. Based on a poor showing from their secondary during the preseason, from starters to backups, it seems only logical to shake it up a bit. To that end, the Steelers have moved Will Allen to starting strong safety and have signed cornerback Ross Cockrell.

The secondary play was pretty bad in preseason. It was most obvious, and painful, in the Buffalo game where a combination of several QBs combined for a completion rate of over 90%. It could be personnel. It could be the new defense. The season is here though and doing forensics on a murdered secondary is a luxury the Steelers no longer have. Preventing it from turning into a season long massacre is the priority.

The Steelers secondary on the 53 man roster is as follows. At safety we have Sharmarko Thomas, Mike Mitchell, Will Allen, and Robert Golden. This is no surprise. These four players were shoe-ins to be on the depth chart. Jordan Dangerfield, a solid performer and favorite of the coaches made the practice squad. It’s the order that’s the surprise.

Will Allen is the starting strong safety instead of Shamarko Thomas. Thomas did not have a particularly good preseason. Many had a lot of confidence in Shamarko Thomas prior to the season. This writer was never sure why.

In his three seasons, as far as I can tell, “Shark” has never done anything to show that he could be a capable starting strong safety in the NFL. This is not to say he cannot. He is fast. He is aggressive. He has plenty of good traits. But Steeler nation and perhaps the coaching staff took for granted that he would slide into Troy’s spot.

Oct 12, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Will Allen (20) against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

If that’s the case however, then it’s a little perplexing that Thomas got almost no snaps at strong safety last year. He received more his rookie year, where his most memorable performance was perhaps getting completely owned by Gronkowski, which again, is not necessarily his fault.

Thomas is just out of position too often. His issue can be fixed with time. He needs to go the way of William Gay however and not Cortez Allen. Thomas is not fully to blame, his development was mismanaged in several ways. His ascendance, much like Cortez Allen, was assumed, or hoped, it was not demonstrated, earned, or developed.

But it can be, absolutely. His attitude seems great. He’s humble, aggressive, strong, fast. It can be done. For now however the strong safety position is in the capable hands of underrated Will Allen. Allen is a long time Steelers vet and backup who has competently performed this role for years. When Thomas is ready the spot will be waiting for him but for now it’s a positive move to put a smart vet like Allen in the spot.

Of the move, Thomas told the Observer-Reporter’s F. Dale Lolley, “The starters are Mike Mitchell and Will Allen. I’m just going to do my job and work. I just found out this morning. I’m going to work and prepare and just put everything I’ve got into this.” With a great attitude like that, and his physical skills, he probably just needs time. We’ll see. But in the mean time, the rock-solid Will Allen will boost the team’s secondary play.

When it comes to cornerback the Steelers have Cortez Allen, William Gay, and Antwon Blake. These players were always likely to make the roster. Brandon Boykin made the roster as well, which was also fairly easy to anticipate, at least in light of Senquez Golson’s injury. Golson by the way is on the injured reserve.

Doran Grant performed fairly well in preseason but was cut. The Steelers kept neither Grant, nor any other corner on the practice squad, which seems odd. Why would you not want a prospect to develop in your weakest unit? And there were options here.

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A widely anticipated position battle for the fifth corner spot was Kevin Fogg and BW Webb. It was closely watched. Neither looked like Darrell Revis, but they both looked competent and capable. It was a close battle. But hold on, think fast, curveball! Neither makes the team. The Steelers sign a fella named Ross Cockrell.

So let’s investigate this now. Who is Ross Cockrell? Sounds like a Cajun sea food dish. But no, our fifth corner is not a Cajun sea food dish. It’s a person believe it or not.

Cockrell was a 4th round selection in 2014 out of Duke. He was picked up by the Buffalo Bills. He’s got solid size at 6 foot, 190 lbs. He was a first team All-ACC player two years in a row and an SI honorable mention for All-American. Apparently, Tomlin really liked him but he got drafted before he fell to the Steelers. Perhaps this was fortunate, since they used that pick on Martavis Bryant, and ended up with Cockrell anyway.

In 2014 he didn’t rack up any stats for the Bills. The Steelers still picked up Cockrell after he was released by the Bills just recently. This doesn’t suggest he’s not good however. First, with Rex Ryan as the new head coach there’s going to be some housecleaning. It doesn’t mean all the players that are traded or cut are bad. LeSean McCoy in Philly for example.

Second, the Bills have a really good defense. They don’t have the record of the Seahawks so they don’t get the attention, but it is up there. It’s a top-tier defense. So, for lack of a better phrase, one team’s trash is another team’s treasure, especially if the team throwing it away is pretty spoiled.

So the changes with the secondary are healthy and logical. The Cockrell move is a bit of a wild card but when the status quo isn’t working then taking a little bit of a risk is not really a risk at all. Allen to strong safety is a smart move. Let a smart vet take the reins while Thomas learns the ropes.

Regardless, the time is now. It’s football season! Let’s play ball Steeler nation. Here we go…