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Steelers using 'O-Line' blueprint to build secondary

Chris Adamski
| Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, 11:20 p.m.
Steelers cornerback Artie Burns tries to track down the Colts' Marlon Mack in the first half Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla
Steelers cornerback Artie Burns tries to track down the Colts' Marlon Mack in the first half Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017 at Heinz Field.

1. Turnover margin

In 2010, the Steelers had finally had enough of the Justin Hartwigs, Tra Essexes, Chris Scotts and the 35-year-old version of Flozell Adams of the world. So, they decided to do something about it. Rather than apply more quick-fixes to a middling offensive line and search for solutions on the cheap, the Steelers went “all in” on addressing the position. So, they spent four of six draft choices in the first- or second- rounds over 2010-12 on offensive linemen.

Management seemed to come to a similar epiphany early last year – this time, with its defensive backs. Seemingly always the punching bag among the fanbase, the secondary became Target No. 1 for an upgrade by way of draft picks (first-, second- and third-round picks over 2016-17), free agency (Coty Sensabaugh, Joe Haden) and the trade market (J.J. Wilcox).

As a result, the Steelers secondary for the 2017 opener bares scant resemblance to the once that took the field for the postseason in January 2016. Of its 11 current members, only William Gay, Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden remain as carryovers from 20 months ago – and two of those three have since been demoted. Replacing the 2015 likes of Cortez Allen, Antwon Blake, Will Allen, Ross Cockrell, Brandon Boykin, Shamarko Thomas and Doran Grant are what could objectively be considered substantial upgrades in Artie Burns, Haden, Sean Davis, Sensabaugh, Mike Hilton, Wilcox and Cameron Sutton.

2. Baby Browns

Similarly, it was only 20 months ago that executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown, coach Hue Jackson and others were named the newest-yet regime to take over personnel decisions for the Browns. Brown was the fifth man over an eight-year span to be at the helm of Cleveland's football department; Jackson likewise the fifth coach since 2010. Will the results be different this time for the woebegone franchise? Time will tell. But what is unambiguously different is the composition of the roster.

Forty-nine of the 59 players on the Browns active roster (counting those on injured reserve) have been acquired by the new regime over the past year and a half: 20 in the past two drafts, four via trades, 13 as free agents and 12 off waivers. Of the 22 men atop the Browns' official depth chart on offense and defense, just six pre-date the tenures of Brown, Jackson, et al.

3. First priority

Though the Steelers had one of the better offenses in the league last season (one of just seven teams to rank among the NFL's top 10 in yards per game, yards per play and points per game), it wasn't because of their play on first down. The Steelers ranked 27th last season in yards per first down attempt at 5.52, according to The NFL's best first down team in 2016? Atlanta, at 8.10 yards per snap.

4. In no rush

Anecdotally via the “eye test,” Le'Veon Bell has long been considered the NFL's most patient running back. Now, thanks to the NFL's “Next Gen Stats” it rolled out in 2016, we have proof. Bell took an average of 3.09 seconds to reach the line of scrimmage on his carries, most in the league last season.

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