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Breakfast with Benz

Tim Benz: Steelers still haven't found what they're looking for at free safety

| Wednesday, June 13, 2018, 3:33 p.m.
Steelers safety Sean Davis intercepts the Titans in the fourth quarter Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers safety Sean Davis intercepts the Titans in the fourth quarter Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017 at Heinz Field.

I asked Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler what seemed to be a pretty important question Wednesday.

Of all the safeties in the mix for playing time this year, who is going to be the free safety? There appear to be multiple options when it comes to candidates who can support the run in the box or help patrol the middle-third of the field. But who is going to be that rangy, deep-middle, coverage guy?

"We haven't found that yet," Butler stated flatly.

So, yeah. That's an important detail.

It's kinda like house hunting. You feel good about the foundation. The living space is nice. But if the roof is old and leaky, everything else is going to get ruined.

"Who is going to be the post safety? Who is going to be down in the box," Butler wondered aloud. "We'll wait for training camp and try to get a feel for what we've got and then make a decision then.

"We have our own thoughts. But I don't think we'll make a decision until we see everybody in pads."

Optimists will say the Steelers are evaluating their candidates. Pessimists will say there's no natural choice and they are just trying to figure out which square peg fits best into a round hole.

The latter is probably most true, unless Sean Davis can make a natural transition from strong safety, where he has played the majority of two-year career in Pittsburgh.

"We know S.D. can play," Butler said. "We know he's got a lot of range."

That's what outside observers are wondering, though. It's always been believed that Davis had the athleticism to play both safety positions. There was even flirtation early in his career with dotting him in at slot corner.

Elevating the ability to cover ground in the deep-middle-third of the defense is deemed to be a major focus for the Steelers this year. Even if Davis isn't a perfect option, his youth and speed should still be better than Mike Mitchell's. His body gave way after nine years at one of the NFL's most physically impactful positions. Hence, his release before the draft.

Butler praised first-round pick Terrell Edmunds' communication skills. That's a must at the position. Butler seemed to think Edmunds is getting that part down quickly. Free-agent signee Morgan Burnett is renowned for being good in that capacity as well.

But the belief has been the Steelers may want those two closer to the line of scrimmage. And they may not want to expose a rookie defensive back out of the gate in Game 1. So the free safety duties may be Davis' to lose.

"That's definitely something I can do," Davis told me Wednesday. "I feel like that's a good way for me to showcase my range and speed by being back there. So I am getting comfortable being deep."

Davis said he's never played the position for an extended period here or in college at Maryland.

"I've got to learn it fast," he laughed. "I would like to know what I'm doing so I can just focus on one thing.

"I just want us to win. So I'm down for whatever."

Both Butler and new defensive backs coach Tom Bradley left the door open to playing six or even seven defensive backs at once. So the Steelers could figure out the best possible mix by fire during the regular season. Cornerback Cam Sutton may even see some time in the deep middle in those scenarios.

"I'm not gonna tell you," Butler said with a smile. "We'll see (in training camp)."

More like they'll see in the regular season. Especially against teams like Jacksonville and New England. In both cases, the Steelers struggled when it came to the safeties tackling or covering, going a combined 0-3 against those teams in 2017-18.

A lot of the answers the Steelers have tried to come up with to get around their defensive deficiencies sound good in theory. Applying those ideas with the personnel on hand is a different kettle of fish.

Back to the house analogy, Butler has the blueprints. Now he has to see if he really has the materials.

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