Steelers: Let’s lower expectations for rookie DBs


The Steelers have finally been spending some prime draft picks on defensive backs like Artie Burns and Sean Davis. But don’t expect too much. It’s hard to be a rookie DB.

There are good reasons to be high on the future of the Steelers defensive backfield. After spending years focusing on rebuilding the offensive line and the linebacker unit, the former effort being more successful at this point than the latter, they turned to the defensive backfield. Now the future looks bright, but the present has changed little.

The Steelers have had a notoriously bad pass defense for a few years now. In 2015 they were ranked 30th. They were 27th in 2014. They were 9th in 2013, and in 2012 they were 1. See the trajectory here? It has been a rapid decline with the old 2000s defense finally aging out of the roster with Taylor and the Polamalu being the last to go.

The Steelers saw this aging and attempted to replenish the ranks with low round draft picks like Terry Hawthorne and Shaquille Richardson, neither which ever saw the field in black and gold. That, the proactive approach, did not work, either because of scouting or developmental mistakes.

Plus. the Steelers pass defense is put under more pressure than most secondaries for two reasons. First, the offense is so good that teams have to play catch up, forcing them to pass more than run. Second, the run defense is actually decent statistically, so teams throw a lot more. So it is especially important to have a good pass defense, and the Steelers have taken appropriate steps.

They signed Mike Mitchell who appears to be a solid addition after a shaky first year. They drafted Burns and Davis most recently, Senquez Golson and Doran Grant the year prior, and even Sharmarko Thomas is still around. So prospects are up.

It’s no use at this point to talk about how talented Burns and Davis are, or Golson, or Grant. We can talk about their size, speed, college stats, but none of that matters. No matter how talented the rookie DB, few are able to be successful right away. Although the name of the position they play stays the same at the professional level, in many regards it is much different.

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The difficulties are not strictly football related. Some of them are the type anyone encounters leaving college for the professional world. For example, Justin Gilbert told Brian Dulk of The Chronicle, “I missed a whole bunch of meetings last year. I wasn’t saying that then, but that’s exactly what it was. I was a hard sleeper and I wasn’t used to waking up consistently like that early in the morning.”

The Steelers know of these difficulties, which is why they went right at Trae Waynes against the Viking in the Hall of Fame Game, resulting in a lot of yards and penalties against the young corner. Even his coach anticipated him doing bad and the Steelers picking on him, because that’s the inevitable result of a rookie corner, failure.

Coach Mike Zimmer told the Mark Craig of the Star Tribune, “Part of the thing was I didn’t want to take him out. I wanted to find out what kind of toughness he had when things happen like that and how are you going to fight back and how are you going to respond. I thought he did a nice job with those things. He’s just got to learn some of the technical things about the NFL.”

So from this quote there’s no indication that Zimmer anticipated Waynes doing well. Essentially, his approach was based on the premise that he would do bad and he would leave him in there. To editorialize a bit, but just a bit, he sent him to get his behind kicked just to make sure he wouldn’t cry. If not crying, walking off the field, or giving up is the most we can expect from a rookie … yikes.

Don’t get me wrong, there have been successful rookie corners and DBs. Deion Sanders is one example, more recently Patrick Peterson in 2011 made the Pro Bowl. But it’s rare, and in some ways even more difficult now.

The NFL is becoming more and more pass oriented. WRs are stars and running backs are role players. While the NCAA has become all about spread offenses and running options. Throwing is secondary for many college QBs now.

May 26, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Senquez Golson (27) participates in OTA drills at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
May 26, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Senquez Golson (27) participates in OTA drills at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

Former Lions head coach and current Eagles DC Jim Schwartz thinks it’s the hardest job in all of sports, telling Tim Twentyman of, “You have to run with world-class receivers, you’ve got to start backwards and they’re going forward. They know where they’re running, you don’t. You’ve got to be tough enough to take on pulling guards and running backs and skilled enough and fast enough to cover the elite athletes, Olympic-caliber speed.”

Giants GM Jerry Reese echoed this idea about running backwards, but former 49ers cornerback Eric Davis felt it was more mental, telling Darryl Slater of, “The most complex scheme that you’re going to find in college, their entire playbook is a watered-down version of a game-day plan for a NFL team. You’re going to come into a game with 10, 12 defenses. That’s an entire playbook for most of these (college) teams.”

Lorenzo Ward, who helped DeAngelo Hall adjust to the NFL, had an interesting theory, saying, “You’re covering more of the field in the NFL because the hash marks are so close. It makes it tough when you take a rookie and put him in all that space.”

He also felt the ability of QBs and WRs to make plays on great coverage is difficult to get over, “If they’re in position, most college quarterbacks are not going to throw at them because they fear making a mistake. Where, if you’re talking about a rookie going into the NFL, he’s going to get thrown at just because he is a rookie. So the leap from college to pro is way greater than the leap from high school to college.”

So why is it difficult for rookie DBs, especially CBs? Is it the hashmarks moving? Running backwards against the best athletes in the world? The playbooks? The accuracy of the quarterbacks? Or is it really just waking up early and having a full time job? Probably a combination of all of these.

Regardless of the reason, let’s not set expectations too high for the young Steelers defensive backs. Particularly among a fan base that has at times called for the firing of Todd Haley, who runs the best offense in the league, and Mike Tomlin, who won one Super Bowl, went to another, and has never had a losing season.

Next: Steelers: A look at the offensive line

The Steelers defensive backfield is going to get better. Coaches and players seem to think Burns and the gang are adapting exceptionally well. But it’s better to be surprised by how well they do than disappointed. This is going to be a great defense … eventually.

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