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Injuries to Steelers secondary could alter plans

Joe Rutter
| Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017, 8:39 p.m.
Steelers cornerback Coty Sensabaugh works against receiver Justin Hunter during practice Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers cornerback Coty Sensabaugh works against receiver Justin Hunter during practice Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Steelers cornerback Ross Cockrell works against receiver Antonio Brown during practice Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers cornerback Ross Cockrell works against receiver Antonio Brown during practice Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Steelers cornerback Ross Cockrell works against receiver Antonio Brown in the end zone during practice Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers cornerback Ross Cockrell works against receiver Antonio Brown in the end zone during practice Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Steelers cornerback Artie Burns sits on his helmet after being beat by Antonio Brown during practice Monday, July 31, 2017 at St. Vincent College.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers cornerback Artie Burns sits on his helmet after being beat by Antonio Brown during practice Monday, July 31, 2017 at St. Vincent College.
Steelers cornerback Senquez Golson breaks up a pass intended for obi Hamilton during practice Sunday, July 30, 2017 at St. Vincent.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers cornerback Senquez Golson breaks up a pass intended for obi Hamilton during practice Sunday, July 30, 2017 at St. Vincent.
Steelers linebacker James Harrison works out during practice Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker James Harrison works out during practice Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017, at Heinz Field.

During June minicamp, defensive backs coach Carnell Lake was asked if anything could derail the Steelers' plan to employ more press-man coverage this season.

Lake was quick with an answer.

“Injuries,” he said. “They are going to happen, and that would be the biggest hindrance to us progressing as a secondary — if we don't have all bodies at our disposal.”

It's the second week of training camp, the Steelers haven't played their first preseason game and injuries already are mounting in the secondary.

Third-round draft pick and rookie corner Cameron Sutton was the first to go down, suffering a lower-body injury on the first day of nonpadded workouts. Veteran safety Mike Mitchell limped off the field early in the first padded workout and has not returned. Senquez Golson, trying to compete for a slot cornerback position, had his third serious injury in as many camps, leaving the initial padded practice with a hamstring injury.

And Friday night, second-year cornerback and 2016 first-round draft pick Artie Burns joined a crowded trainer's room with a leg injury. He hasn't practice since, including Sunday night at Heinz Field.

Extended absences in the secondary could put a wrinkle in the plans to deploy more press coverage. The issue surfaced after Tom Brady shredded the secondary for 384 yards and three touchdown passes in the New England Patriots' 36-17 victory against the Steelers in last season's AFC championship game.

The Steelers made it a focus during organized team activities and minicamp before reporting to Latrobe. They tried to find players capable of playing press coverage in free agency by signing veteran Coty Sensabaugh and in the draft by selecting Sutton and fifth-round corner Brian Allen among eight selections.

“It's definitely a hot topic,” cornerback Ross Cockrell said. “We'll see how it goes.”

In training camp, Burns was paired exclusively with All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown until the corner was injured early in the Friday night practice. Cockrell, entering his second full year as a starter, was paired against Justin Hunter and other receivers competing for the No. 2 spot. The past two practices, Cockrell has struggled in coverage against Brown.

Before his injury, Burns said the concept of playing press coverage only would work if the Steelers had the personnel and aptitude to use it.

“Whatever best fits the guy that's on the field, that's the scheme we're going to have to go with,” he said.

Training camp would give the Steelers six weeks to decide which direction to take.

“I want to pick a route that I want to go down,” Burns said, “and give them some type of view about what they can look forward to.”

If the intent was to create a more physical tone among defensive backs, that message was received. Burns and Cockrell emphasized the need to play close to the line of scrimmage and jam the receivers to disrupt routes.

“We want to play true, legitimate Steelers defense, going back to the '70s, going back to when coach Lake played in the '90s,” Cockrell said. “Those guys put hands on people, got off the blocks, got to the ball. That's what we want to incorporate into our game.”

Burns concurred.

“That's the Steeler way, the Steeler tradition,” he said. “We just want to follow in that tradition.”

The AFC championship game aside, the Steelers made strides last season while transitioning to a younger, more athletic defense. With Burns and safety Sean Davis each starting nine games as rookies, the Steelers were in the middle of the pack (16th) in passing yards allowed. That was an improvement from 27th in 2014 and 30th in 2015.

The upgrade happened, in part, because the Steelers were fifth in passes defensed and fourth in red-zone percentage.

“We played a significant amount of man last year on certain downs, in certain situations and in certain games,” Cockrell said. “Last year, we had to get to know each other. This year, we know each other more. We have a little more of a cohesive unit.”

One that apparently only injuries can tear apart.

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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