4 questions Steelers still need to answer before the summer

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Which defensive back will take over in the slot?

The Pittsburgh Steelers are pretty set at nearly all the starting positions on the roster. However, one glaring hole is at slot corner. They remade the secondary this offseason, allowing veterans Terrell Edmunds and Cam Sutton to walk while bringing in Patrick Peterson and Keanu Neal in free agency and Joey Porter Jr. and Cory Trice in the draft.

They also signed Chandon Sullivan during the final rounds of the draft. Sullivan has plenty of experience playing in the slot but is not the most dynamic or reliable player. Finally, they made the surprising move to release Arthur Maulet, who was expected to compete for the starting job or at least earn a significant number of snaps in a rotational role. Therefore, that fifth defensive back position is very much in flux. 

Sullivan has the most experience as a slot-specific defender, but his PFF grades, especially his Coverage grades, have worsened yearly as he earned more snaps. Joey Porter Jr., Levi Wallace, Ahkello Witherspoon, and James Pierre have minimal experience in the slot and don’t necessarily have the body types or physical skillset to succeed there. Cory Trice has some experience playing safety and in the slot, but that could be a big ask for a seventh-round rookie, even if his fall was primarily due to injury. 

Damontae Kazee has some experience there but is at his best as a deep safety, while Tre Norwood has gotten exposed when given significant playing time. Keanu Neal has some experience there, but he should be utilized more in the box as a run defender, tight end stopper, and pseudo-linebacker. This leaves two options that are already starters at other positions: Patrick Peterson and Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Peterson has discussed moving around the defense several times this offseason. He’s obviously not the player he was five to ten years ago, but he’s still a solid, reliable option. His smarts and size would be very useful in the slot. This would also allow Peterson to make more plays on the ball, especially in zone coverage over the middle of the field. To replace him at outside corner, Levi Wallace could fill in as Peterson kicks inside. 

Minkah Fitzpatrick is an elite free safety, and sliding into one primary role was part of the impetus behind his trade to the Steelers. But with Kazee manning the back end, could Fitzpatrick reprise his college role with the Steelers? At Alabama, he was the “Star,” the slot defender for Nick Saban that moved all over the field. Like Peterson, this would allow Fitzpatrick to play closer to the ball, increasing the frequency with which he can impact the play. However, the Steelers may not be as comfortable asking Keanu Neal to execute more deep safety responsibilities if they slide Fitzpatrick into the slot. 

Ultimately, unless more moves are made, I expect Mike Tomlin and Teryl Austin to rotate primary slot defenders based on their opponents and the matchups. Similar to last year when Arthur Maulet was the “run defending” slot corner, and Cam Sutton was the “pass coverage” player, they could use different players based on the down, distance, and offensive personnel. 

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Therefore, especially in the early part of the season, expect the Steelers to rotate different bodies in the slot to avoid establishing tendencies. However, this strategy is a gamble, as the lack of one consistent starter exposes the Steelers to certain matchups possibly being exploited.