Blend of veterans, newcomers in Steelers secondary help improve pass defense, take away big plays
The second-year safety on the NFL's second-best defense was unaware the Steelers have given up only two pass plays longer than 25 yards this season.
“That's pretty good,” Sean Davis said. “Shoutout to the defense.”
Through four weeks, the Steelers have allowed the second-fewest passing yards per game (154), are one of three teams that haven't given up a 40-yard pass play and the only defensive unit that hasn't yielded one longer than 30 yards.
Preventing the deep pass completion is one reason behind a Steelers defensive resurgence that has resulted in a 3-1 record they will take into their game Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Heinz Field.
Credit a strengthened secondary that runs seven players deep and includes newcomers Joe Haden, J.J. Wilcox and Mike Hilton.
“I'm happy with the progress we're making,” said free safety Mike Mitchell, who's in his fourth season with the Steelers. “When I think about where we've been in the years past at this time of the year, I think as a unit we're ahead.”
The proof is in the numbers. One-quarter of the way through last season, the Steelers had a pass defense that ranked No. 30. In 2015, the first year with Keith Butler as the defensive coordinator, the Steelers were No. 13 at the quarter mark but plunged to No. 30 by the end of the season.
Last year, the slow start occurred before then-rookies Davis and cornerback Artie Burns became regular starters. Robert Golden and William Gay were starting in the secondary. By the end of the year, the Steelers had improved to No. 16, peaking at No. 14 as a pass defense.
This uptick coincided with the team's improved pass rush. After generating just eight sacks through seven games in 2016, the Steelers had 30 in the final nine. This year, the Steelers have 15 sacks. Only the Jaguars have brought down the quarterback more frequently.
“It takes the defensive line and secondary playing well together,” Butler said. “I think it's always been and always will be that if you've got good rushers and good covers, you've got a chance to put pressure on the quarterback.
“They've done a good job, but we've only played four games so far.”
And the catch is — there usually is one, right? — that the Steelers haven't merely played four games. They have faced four pedestrian passing offenses. In fact, the four quarterbacks the Steelers have faced wouldn't occupy Mount Washington — let alone Mount Rushmore — in the pantheon of active elite signal-callers.
In four games, the Steelers have faced one rookie making his first start (DeShone Kizer), a backup (Case Keenum), a career backup who's been demoted back to a backup (Mike Glennon) and a former Super Bowl winner slowly returning from injury (Joe Flacco). They are three of the four lowest-rated quarterbacks (Keenum being the exception) after four games.
“It's different playing Tom Brady than a backup quarterback,” Burns said. “The quarterback play means a lot. We definitely want to get (pressure on) those guys. We don't want those guys to be back there baking cakes the whole night.”
The competition level will increase exponentially after the Steelers face the Jaguars' Blake Bortles on Sunday. Next weekend brings the Chiefs' Alex Smith, who has the league's top passer rating. Looming later on the schedule are the Lions' Matthew Stafford, the Packers' Aaron Rodgers and, of course, the Patriots' Brady.
“We're starting to develop into that (winning) defense, but we've got a lot of good offenses we haven't played yet, a lot of them,” Butler said. “If we can keep getting better and learn to play with each other and communicate with each other, we should be alright.”
Neither Burns nor the veteran Haden has an interception this year, and the lone picks in the secondary belong to Hilton and Wilcox. The Steelers, however, have been adept at knocking the ball to the ground — their 22 passes defensed rank fourth in the NFL — and they have prevented the big play.
“Haden and I stay on top, make sure we come out of our breaks and, if they catch something on us, we make sure it's coming back to the quarterback,” Burns said. “As long as we do that, we think it's going to be a lot harder to beat us.”
Aiding the cause is all four starting defensive backs were drafted in the first or second round, including former top-10 pick Haden, whose signing enabled the Steelers to trade 2016 starter Ross Cockrell. Wilcox, acquired in another trade, is a former third-round draft pick. He started against the Ravens when Mitchell was bothered by a hamstring injury.
Haden and Wilcox join slot cornerback Hilton, a former undrafted free agent, as newcomers to the secondary. Where Hilton was with the team through the entire offseason program, Haden and Wilcox had to learn the Steelers' system just days before the start of the season.
“We work hard. We communicate. We talk on the field, do extra stuff together,” Davis said. “There are a lot of new pieces and components, but we're starting to jell and mesh with all of the new pieces.”
The depth is such that Golden, who started seven games last year, has played just two defensive snaps. And it has allowed the Steelers to use the dime package — with Gay or Wilcox as the extra defensive back — on about 23 percent of all defensive snaps after rarely deploying a sixth defensive back last season.
The Steelers also have succeeded without going all-in yet on their preseason goal of playing more press coverage in the secondary. Haden said he primarily has played zone with the Steelers after being used in man coverage during his tenure with the Browns.
“They say we're playing some more man here, and that's perfectly fine, but we do throw a lot more zone,” Haden said. “The corners get to play with a lot more vision.”
Burns said the Steelers haven't abandoned the press coverage scheme and continue to work on it in practice. The need to use it extensively didn't present itself against Kizer, Keenum, Glennon and Flacco.
“We're trying to put all of our coverages in now so that when it comes time, we are comfortable with all of our coverages and we don't have any problem with switching it up,” he said.
Those chances will come later in the season when the quarterback competition stiffens. Until then, the Steelers will try to build on the secondary success they have achieved through four weeks.
“We have some young guys coming along for us,” Butler said, referring to Davis and Burns, “and we've got some vets, too. The combination of all those guys working together ... if they can keep learning to play selfless, we'll be a good defense.”