Steelers: Rooney Talks Renewed Focus on Secondary

Jan 17, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback William Gay (22) and defensive back Brandon Boykin (25) celebrate after a defensive stop against the Denver Broncos during the third quarter of the AFC Divisional round playoff game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 17, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback William Gay (22) and defensive back Brandon Boykin (25) celebrate after a defensive stop against the Denver Broncos during the third quarter of the AFC Divisional round playoff game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports /

Steelers Team President Art Rooney II discussed the current state of the Steelers secondary and how the team plans to improve it

The Steelers had several weaknesses a few years ago during consecutive 8-8 seasons that fans consider Tomlin’s dark ages, an enviable slump for many teams. The defense was not clogging lanes, getting sacks or turnovers. The run game was mediocre, offensive line poor, and Ben was getting sacked a lot. All those problems have been fixed, except one. The secondary still is giving up a lot of passing yards.

Rooney recently discussed the coming offseason with the media and talked at length about the secondary.

He was quoted by Mark Kaboly of as saying, “I think we all agree that we need to be better in general as a pass defense. I think when you look statistically, we weren’t where we would like to be in pass defense. I would say that’s an area we know we want to improve in. We certainly made progress on defense and got better as the year went on.”

The Steelers secondary has been poor for a few years now. This year the Steelers were 30th in the league in passing yards per game on defense. Meanwhile they were 5th in rushing yards per game, tied for 3rd with 30 takeaways, and also being 3rd in sacks with 48. But they remained 11th in scoring defense and 21st overall in yardage because of the pass defense.

It’s true that Cockrell and Boykin, when he was eventually put on the field, added some life to the secondary but Boykin is likely gone, voluntarily, and the secondary was still pretty bad.

Rooney felt the same, saying, “We need to be better than that. On that front, I would say no, we aren’t satisfied with where we are. I am not going to suggest that we need to do something dramatically different.”

But the Steelers secondary has been giving up a lot of yards for a while now. They were 27th in the league in 2014 and have been dropping in rank since the 2012 season when the finished 1st in the league, allowing only 185 yards per game, a full 87 yards per game less than the current 272 per game. They gave up almost 1400 more yards overall.

But this did not appear to be a surprise to many Steelers fans. Steelers fans have been wanting some help in the secondary for a long time. The old Super Bowl secondary of Polamalu, Clark, and Taylor got older and then left and nothing’s been done to replace them aside from Mitchell being signed to take Clark’s spot.

William Gay got promoted from the nickel to the starting corner and Antwon Blake came from the practice squad to the starter. Polomalu was replaced with his backup Will Allen. It seems obvious, if a group of starters gets replaced by their backups, the backups will not be as good at starting, or else they would have been in the first place.

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So why are there still problems? Why was nothing done about this.

Rooney explained, “It’s a combination of things. We’ve made some mistakes. There’s no denying that, regarding some of the evaluations. Having said that, we still have players in that group that we think can improve. That’s what we are looking forward to: Having that group get better as the years go on. That’s what we are looking for this upcoming offseason.”

Now before I go armchair general managing I will say that the circumstances have not been easy and how we got here is pretty understandable. Recall earlier when I mentioned the litany of issues the Steelers had a few years ago? Remember how I said all the rest were fixed? Well there’s only so many draft picks and only so much money.

The Steelers prioritized fixing the offensive line and the linebacking unit primarily. They also lent some focus to the wide receiver position and the defensive ends. They also made one particularly big choice at RB. All those positions are dramatically better because of the drafting the Steelers have done. But you can’t choose everyone. And of those you choose you can’t win every one.

The Steelers simply did not prioritize the secondary. It’s understandable though. Something has to be at the bottom of the list. The offensive line had to improve because Ben is the franchise. The linebackers had to improve because that’s the core of the defense. The ends, receivers, and running back were second priority but good things happened there. Not as lucky with the secondary.

The Steelers hoped for a late round homer like they get with the WR positions or O line sometimes. No such luck. They wiffed on Terry Hawthorne and Shaq Richardson. The two really were never even given an opportunity, wasted draft picks. Sharmarko Thomas has not panned out either and after this year it does not appear he will.

This year they drafted Doran Grant, Gerod Holliman, and Senquez Golson. None of them saw the field. Golson returns from injury next year and they at least got Grant on the practice squad. The circumstances of having to pick low is not the Steelers fault but missing badly on all 6 draft picks in the secondary over the last 3 drafts is on them.

Money has also been a problem. They were able to get Mike Mitchell and after a rough start he appears to be a lone solid spot from which to build. It’s not the Steelers fault they don’t have the money for a big time corner necessarily, or that the market for corners is so expensive.

The Steelers do deserve some blame for two things though. First, Keenan Lewis is probably the only success story in developing secondary players from the draft the Steelers have had since Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor in the 2003 draft. The Steelers let him go and chose instead to invest in Cortez Allen. That obviously did not work out.

But now that’s the missing piece. The only one perhaps. So the Steelers plan to focus on it.

Art Rooney II said to that end, from the AP as reported by ESPN, “We invested some draft picks in some players last year that we certainly hope are going to take a step forward in this coming season and be contributors. Obviously we’ve got to look at some opportunities this offseason both in terms of free agency and the draft. It’s something we have to keep working on.”

Next: First Impressions of Steelers 2016 Opponents

Looking forward to seeing what the secondary looks like at kickoff 2016.