The Pittsburgh Steelers addressed many positions of need through free agency and the NFL Draft, whether it was signing Mark Barron, Donte Moncrief and Steven Nelson or selecting Devin Bush, Diontae Johnson and Justin Layne.
One of the most important offseason acquisitions was hiring Teryl Austin as secondary coach, adding another veteran voice to join Tom Bradley in teaching coverage techniques to the Steelers cornerbacks and safeties.
“It’s two different voices but both of them are trying to get that same (message) to us and same techniques to us,” Steelers nickel cornerback Mike Hilton said. “It’s a good thing for us, and it’s going to help us in the long run.”
It’s about time. This was long overdue.
That’s especially true now that the NFL is such a pass-oriented league that forces defenses to use as many as six or seven defensive backs in some sub-package situations. Never has there been such a premium at the cornerback and safety positions.
So, it didn’t make much sense the Steelers employed inside linebacker and outside linebacker coaches, not to mention a defensive coordinator who played linebacker in the league, but had only one coach in charge of cornerbacks and safeties.
Perhaps that explains why the Steelers have had so many draft picks go bust at cornerback. Whether it’s their drafting or development to blame — if not both — the Steelers have little to show for investing draft picks in Artie Burns (2016 first round), Senquez Golson (2015 second), Cameron Sutton (2017 third), Doran Grant (2015 fourth) and Brian Allen (2017 fifth).
The Steelers finally made a smart move for their secondary when they hired Austin instead of an outside linebackers coach upon firing Joey Porter in January. It showed they realize the importance of developing defensive backs in an increasingly pass-oriented league — and the price to pay if you don’t.
Despite selecting six cornerbacks in the past five drafts, including third-rounder Layne this year, the Steelers have been forced to find starters through free agency and trades.
They are expected to start Nelson and Joe Haden, who followed Coty Sensabaugh, who followed Ross Cockrell as free-agent corners who became starters. It came with a hefty tag: Nelson signed a club-record deal, at three years for $25.5 million, and Haden signed in 2017 for three years and $27 million.
So, the Steelers are paying their starting corners $18 million this season to play ahead of draft picks. If that isn’t an indictment on their drafting and development, I don’t know what is.
It hasn’t been much better at safety, where they spent in free agency to sign Morgan Burnett, Mike Mitchell, Will Allen and Ryan Clark. The Steelers have to be crossing their fingers that Sean Davis and Terrell Edmunds can end that carousel, although Davis is eligible to become a free agent next year.
That’s not even counting the trades made in desperation, when the Steelers sent sixth-round picks to acquire cornerbacks Brandon Boykin and Justin Gilbert and safety J.J. Wilcox. None of those trades worked, either.
Not only does turning to the free agent market so often go against the Steelers’ philosophy, it defies common sense to spend money on both high draft picks and expensive free agents at the same positions.
And it doesn’t help when undrafted free agents like Hilton and safety Jordan Dangerfield earn playing time ahead of guys the Steelers drafted or signed as big-ticket free agents. No offense to either player, but that’s a sign something needed to change in the Steelers’ approach to the secondary.
The Steelers are trying to salvage something in Burns, who is working hard to bounce back from being benched last season and has been sitting in on coaches’ meetings this spring. They can’t afford for a former first-rounder to be a bust, especially one talented enough to start as a rookie.
They also have to maximize the strengths of another former first-rounder in Edmunds, who had his ups and downs last season after being forced to start as a rookie because of Burnett’s injuries, and to develop Layne at cornerback.
The Steelers have to hope their two secondary coaches can aid in that development. Both have a history as defensive coordinators, Austin with the Detroit Lions and Cincinnati Bengals and Bradley at Penn State and UCLA, so they are splitting their duties during organized team activities.
“They’re both like football geniuses,” Dangerfield said. “Each of them has their own technique. They bring a lot to the table. Learning them from each day, they’re smart so you’ve got to listen and bring it onto the field. I think we’re all on the same page right now, which is a good thing with communication.”
Whether Austin and Bradley can keep the Steelers on the same page will go a long way toward determining their success this season, now that the secondary finally became a priority.