Steelers defense bolstered by depth in secondary
Injuries that sidelined two starting defensive backs for a game against a division leader could have crippled most NFL teams. That's especially true for one that has spent much of its financial resources on offense.
The Steelers, though, overcame some hiccups by the substitutes in the secondary to limit the Tennessee Titans to two touchdowns in a 40-17 victory Thursday night that kept them atop the AFC playoff race.
With Joe Haden out with a fractured fibula and Mike Mitchell missing with an ankle injury, the Steelers weren't forced to plug in rookies or untested backups against the first-place Titans. Instead, they turned to two former NFL starters, a sign of the depth in their secondary that is uncommon in the salary-cap era.
And the backups made significant contributions in the Steelers' fifth consecutive win, which came as no surprise to linebacker Ryan Shazier, the defensive playcaller.
“When they come in,” he said, “we expect them to make plays.”
Coty Sensabaugh, who started for three teams before joining the Steelers in March, replaced Haden and had an interception that led to a first-half field goal and 13-7 lead. Robert Golden, who lost his starting job to strong safety Sean Davis last season, replaced Mitchell at free safety had five tackles plus an interception that led to the final field goal in the 23-point rout.
“We know who is coming in and what they can do,” Shazier said. “We just played our defense. It doesn't matter if starters are in or the last man on the depth chart. We have everybody ready for the game. They are in the same meetings everyone is in, so it's not like they are getting shorter knowledge.”
Sensabaugh and Golden were part of a secondary that intercepted four passes — matching the total for Steelers defensive backs through the first nine games. It was the first time since November 1997 that the Steelers had four interceptions in a game. Mike Hilton and Davis had the others, with Hilton's also leading to a Chris Boswell field goal.
“The guys made the necessary plays,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “As the game wore on, you just felt the momentum, and often times those splash plays are created by game circumstances or an accumulation of blows, if you will, so it was good for us.”
After Tom Brady passed for 384 yards and three touchdowns in the AFC championship game, the Steelers set about upgrading their secondary, particularly in finding players with experience playing press coverage. They did it while facing an imbalanced salary cap structure weighted heavily toward the offense. The Steelers have allocated nearly $97 million on the offense this year, compared to $56.5 million for the defense.
Sensabaugh, formerly with the Titans, Rams and Giants, was signed to a modest two-year contract in March with the intention of competing with 2016 starter Ross Cockrell. Haden was scooped up with a three-year deal in late August, hours after the Cleveland Browns released him. His signing pushed Sensabaugh into a backup role and prompted the trade of Cockrell to the Giants.
Golden, in the middle of a three-year contract, continued as a special teams contributor while backing up Mitchell and Davis. The Steelers also traded for safety J.J. Wilcox a week before the season and groomed undrafted free agent Hilton to be the slot corner.
The depth is such that former starting cornerback William Gay is limited to playing in dime packages, while two other defensive backs with NFL experience — Dashaun Phillips and Jordan Dangerfield — are on the practice squad. And Wilcox, another former NFL starter, has played just four defensive snaps during the five-game winning streak.
Asked if this is the deepest group he's seen in his six years with the Steelers, Golden was quick to answer in the affirmative.
“No question,” he said. “I think guys prepare every day as if they can come in and start. I know a lot of guys have started, including myself. To have that veteran presence to come in and fill a role is good, so we want to continue to keep working and continue to stack these wins.”
The secondary could get even deeper this week. The Steelers must decide by Tuesday if they will activate third-round draft pick Cameron Sutton from injured reserve. Unless another defensive back is cut, the Steelers would have 11 on the 53-man roster.
“We have a lot of capable guys in that room,” Sensabaugh said.
Despite giving up 306 yards passing to Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, including a 75-yard score on the first play of the second half in which Sensabaugh was beaten deep and Golden missed a tackle, the Steelers remain third in the NFL by allowing 190 passing yards per game. They are second in scoring, holding opponents to 16.5 points per game.
“It means a lot, but I'm still mad about the one play I gave up,” Sensabaugh said. “They kind of schemed us up, and they knew what coverage we were in and ran a route to beat that. But we learned from it, and we moved forward. I don't think they made any other plays after that. We've just got to keep working.”
Sensabaugh figures to start for the foreseeable future while Haden recovers from his fracture that could keep him off the field until deep into December. Hamstring and ankle injuries have bothered Mitchell since training camp and resulted in his first two absences in four years with the Steelers. With the extra weekend off, Mitchell could return next Sunday for the Steelers' prime-time matchup against the Packers.
Either way, Golden will be prepared to play. He is an example of perseverance, having lost his starting job last year in conjunction with the Steelers ending the season on a seven-game winning streak. This year, he is contributing to a winning streak, having vaulted past Wilcox on the depth chart.
“We just focus on what we can control, and we focus on our locker room,” Golden said. “Guys in our locker room believe in each other. We don't worry about what guys say outside the locker room because they never had faith in us anyway. We just stick together and try to get the job done.”