Despite popular belief, the Pittsburgh Steelers will have a competitive secondary in 2017.
This does not mean Ross Cockrell, Coty Sensabaugh or Deshaun Phillips. Right now, until someone stops stalling on giving Cameron Sutton the starting job, the Steelers will play basically a man down in the defensive backfield.
There’s enough talent around to work with one weak spot, though. Artie Burns, Sean Davis, and Mike Mitchell may not have been some of the best last season, but with one year of experience with each other, they look like a brand new group.
For right now, Sutton will likely play the nickel. Which, is okay, until the team discovers they need him on the outside. But for right now, it provides another area of the field the Steelers won’t need to worry about providing extra coverage for.
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Then, there’s Ryan Shazier. Yes, he’s an inside linebacker, but outside of stuffing the run, he’s proven to be a dependable asset in the pass coverage. And until this team figures out how to defend all aspects of the secondary, he’ll likely be used in a lot of pass coverages. Which is fine considering he’s recorded an interception in five of his last six games.
By making the trade for Phillips, the Steelers have started their process of moving Sutton to the outside. For two seasons, Phillips played nickel for the Washington Redskins, recording 14 tackles and a fumble recovery in 11 career games.
Not the most promising start to an NFL career, but by being a young talent, he’s capable of developing from the slot position. This means instead of putting Cockrell or Sensabaugh on the outside, the Steelers can give Sutton the opportunity to prove himself in his rookie year.
This might not happen immediately. Right now, it looks like Cockrell will get the start Week 1 unless something changes in the next two weeks. But after a few missed tackles and a big play or two given up on the outside, the team will have no choice but to try something different.
The Steelers are one of the smartest defensive teams in NFL history. At some point, they’ll stop trying to let players earn a starting job they aren’t talented enough to receive. It may take some frustrating plays before it happens, but at some point, they’ll give this job to a player worthy of it.
“You can’t just go out there and try to guard every route or try to decipher every play,” Sutton told Mike Prisuta of Steelers.com. “You have to kind of limit things down, know what the other guys are thinking and doing out there on the field.”
“And then see ball, get ball, have fun and just fly around.”
Sounds like someone who’s ready to begin his NFL career to me.