The Pittsburgh Steelers have struggled in coverage this year, and their lack of investment at the cornerback position is to blame.
Like many of us successfully predicted, the Pittsburgh Steelers got what they paid for at the cornerback position. Since busting on Artie Burns in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, this team has been gunshy to spend valuable draft capital and resources at the cornerback position.
Instead, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have been trying to go year-to-year at the position with stop-gap bargain free agents and even petty late-round trades. This philosophy hasn’t panned out.
This year, we’ve seen these struggles in full force. Prior to his hamstring injury, Ahkello Witherspoon seemed to have reverted back to the player he was before an impressive late-season stretch in 2021, while Arthur Maulet isn’t fooling anyone when it comes to his ability to cover from the slot. Here are the passer ratings allowed by each Steelers cornerback entering Week 8:
These numbers really shouldn’t come as a big surprise. In fact, an interception by Levi Wallace against the Bills really helped salvage his passer rating when targeted. However, Pro Football Focus would argue that Wallace has not only been the worst of the group, but also one of the worst cornerbacks in the NFL this year:
These grades are despicable, but they certainly aren’t shocking. I think they, more or less, line up with what we see on tape. Cameron Sutton is a legitimate nickel cornerback with a great feel for the game to go with good coverage skills and the occasional ability to take the ball away. He has allowed just a 75.4 passer rating when targeted this season to go with the 17th-highest grade among NFL cornerbacks through seven games.
However, it’s clear that Sutton is at his best when covering slot receivers inside the formation. He just doesn’t have elite size or athletic traits to be a great boundary cornerback. It’s also evident that there isn’t another cornerback on the team who has played above replacement level to this point.
Steelers need to start investing in CB in 2023
I know they haven’t had a lot of success in the past when it comes to making high investments on cornerbacks in the NFL Draft, but this genuinely needs to change soon if the Steelers want to see better results at the position. It’s worth noting that Pittsburgh has only dipped their feet in the cornerback pool in the first round one time since taking Chad Scott all the way back in 1997.
This is far too small of a sample to get accurate results, and the game has changed so much since then. In today’s passing league, Pittsburgh needs to have a top-flight CB who can take away the opposing team’s best option.
Unfortunately, this group in 2022 has been so unspectacular that it’s hard to tell the difference between their best cornerbacks and a player like James Pierre who barely made the final roster this year. Part of the reason for this is that Pittsburgh is content taking the leftovers from other teams. Buffalo was done with Levi Wallace, so they were able to get him for cheap. The same could be said about Arthur Maulet when they signed him away from New York last year.
Perhaps the biggest problem that this entire group of cornerbacks shares is that none of them have elite athletic traits. Witherspoon is the most athletic of the group, but he has been out since Week 3. Players like Wallace, Maulet, Pierre, and Josh Jackson each had close to 4.6 speed coming out of college.
This cornerback room needs to get more athletic and flat-out more talented in 2023. These guys are fortunate that the defense hasn’t been the biggest issue despite unspectacular cornerback play. Outside of Cam Sutton, nobody’s job should be safe going into next offseason, and the Steelers need to consider an overhaul of the CB room.