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Steelers' secondary faces restructuring in offseason

| Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, 9:12 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Bengals receiver A.J. Green breaks away from Steelers cornerback William Gay (left) and safety Mike Mitchell to score a touchdown during the fourth quarter of their AFC wild-card game Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016, in Cincinnati.

Of the 5,249 defensive snaps taken by members of the Steelers secondary this season, 99 percent came from seven players.

Five of those seven players are about to be unrestricted free agents.

While a wiseacre might say that's a good thing — after all, the Steelers finished with the third-worst passing defense in the NFL — a realist recognizes the front office has plenty of decisions to make because a complete overhaul of the team's cornerbacks and safeties isn't wise or practical.

“Just how far (the secondary) came this season, being a younger group, I'm excited to see how it continues to grow,” cornerback William Gay said, “if I'm back.”

Gay joins Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin as cornerbacks on the cusp of unrestricted free agency. Same for safeties Will Allen and Robert Golden.

Gay, Blake and Boykin combined to start 33 games this season, the remainder of the roster at cornerback started seven.

According to footballoutsiders.com, Gay, Blake and Boykin played 2,260 of the 2,977 defensive snaps taken by Steelers cornerbacks this season (76 percent).

Among safeties, Allen and Golden accounted for 53 percent of the snaps played. They combined to start all 16 games at strong safety.

The lone assured returnees who played more than 3 percent of the Steelers snaps in the secondary this season are cornerback Ross Cockrell and safety Mike Mitchell. Mitchell rarely came off the field. Cockrell started seven games and spent most of the season as the third cornerback — though he had fallen to No. 4 by the playoffs.

“It's going to be interesting to see what goes on this offseason,” said Golden, a special teams captain who played extensively on defense for the first time. “I definitely want to stick around.”

That's a sentiment shared by Gay and Blake.

Although he has not necessarily expressed a desire to leave Pittsburgh, Boykin has not been vocal about coming back, either. Boykin was utilized exclusively in the slot. In the past, he had expressed displeasure over not playing on the outside. Boykin played only 23 snaps on defense until the final five games of the regular season and the playoffs, when he began playing more than Cockrell and Blake.

Despite 271.9 passing yards per game given up, the secondary's performance belied its No. 30 NFL ranking. The team was tied for sixth with 17 interceptions (12 from defensive backs), and it finished in the top half of the NFL in 20-plus yard pass plays allowed (52) and opponent passer rating (90.9).

“We surprised a lot of people. We surprised ourselves in some ways,” Blake said. “As the season continued to progress, we came together more and meshed together more as a unit.”

Even in the highly unlikely event that all of the free agents in the secondary walk — four, to varying degrees, have strong ties to the organization and are popular among teammates and coaches — the cupboard isn't bare beyond Mitchell and Cockrell.

Two 2015 draft picks — cornerbacks Senquez Golson and Doran Grant — return, and cornerback Cortez Allen and safety Shamarko Thomas remain under contract.

However, Golson has not taken part in an NFL practice because of shoulder injury. Grant began the season on the practice squad and played one defensive snap. Thomas, after a disappointing preseason, was demoted from starting strong safety to the depth chart's bottom. And Allen has been limited to 12 uninspiring games the past two seasons since signing a $26 million contract.

“Whatever's gonna happen is gonna happen,” Golden said. “It's out of my control. I'm just looking forward to (the future).”

Staff writer Bob Cohn contributed. Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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