The Steelers secondary might need a second-year player such as Doran Grant to step up next season.
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The general consensus of themes for the 2015 Steelers entering their 50th Saint Vincent College training camp was this: A high-powered offense would have to carry a defense in transition if they were to accomplish anything over the course of the season.
And then the tables turned. As key members of that offense were picked off one by one starting in the preseason, something else happened that might bode well for the Steelers in 2016: Their defense grew up quickly. It performed well beyond any expectations, and actually helped carry that wounded offense to victories and into two rounds of the playoffs.
So while the talent drain on offense through injuries to their best players — among the best in the NFL — might ultimately have kept the Steelers from continuing to play today, their defense might have benefited by necessity.
“I thought we were continually a group on the rise,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “That’s what you hope for. I expect those guys to play great defense. They’ve got talent. We’re going to work to put them in position to be successful. Not successful enough to reach our hopes and dreams, obviously, in ’15. But, we laid a good foundation, hopefully, as we move forward and start this process and know that we’re better because of the collective experiences that we shared in ’15.”
But there is work to be done, virtually all of it in the secondary.
After drafting linebackers in the first round the past three seasons, it’s time to work on the back end of the defense, which is no secret from Tomlin on down to the most casual Steelers fan.
Cornerbacks and safeties. They do not need numbers, they need quality at both. It’s not as if they have ignored those two positions, but they have drafted poorly, traded poorly and misjudged the talent they thought they had.
First of all, there is no cornerback or safety on their roster who can improve their secondary. Cornerback Cortez Allen will not be on the team in 2016; he should not have been on it in 2015 after his midseason benching in 2014, months after they somehow decided he was the cornerback cornerstone of the future by giving him a five-year, $26 million contract.
It will go down as one of the worst big-money contracts in Steelers history, a monumental miscalculation of his talent and wherewithal. They paid him $5.6 million in 2015, including a $3 million roster bonus in March. He is due a salary of $4.4 million this year he will never see.
Allen played 32 snaps in the season opener and never played again, ultimately going on injured reserve (knee) Oct. 24. After that, he was rarely seen around the Steelers facility, unlike others on IR such as Kelvin Beachum and Bruce Gradkowski, who even traveled with the team.
Tomlin, asked Wednesday if he’s still envisioning Allen as an impact player, replied, “I’m not. We’ll see.”
But they have seen enough. Another young player they once thought would bolster them is safety Shamarko Thomas, drafted in 2013 after they traded a third-round pick in 2014 to Cleveland in order to get him. He has played little in the secondary in three years, just 20 snaps on defense all this season.
Tomlin cited his “core” special teams play, but added, “He’s still evolving as a defender, he’s still working to prove himself in that area.”
Throwing good draft picks after bad, the Steelers traded a fifth-rounder in training camp for cornerback Brandon Boykin — and then did not use him for the longest time. They finally worked him into their nickel defense around midseason, and he played in 24.7 percent of their defenses in 2015, according to snap counts kept by Football Outsiders. Now he becomes a free agent.
The only hope for improvement in the secondary from within is 5-foot-9 Senquez Golson, their second-round draft pick who spent his rookie season on injured reserve. They also drafted Doran Grant in the fourth round this year, only to cut him before the season. After every team passed on claiming him, he signed to the Steelers practice squad and at midseason to their 53-man roster. He played one snap on defense all season.
But that does not mean the Steelers cannot upgrade their secondary. Of course, it would cost them. A top free-agent cornerback such as Carolina star Josh Norman likely would break their cap. They can look for a less expensive option, but one of the best available options fitting that description is Boykin.
The same is true at safety, where San Diego veteran Eric Weddle might be worth a shot at age 30.
Whatever they do in the secondary, though, their past failures in the draft will be cause for skepticism.
Their top two players in the secondary are safety Mike Mitchell, who will have yet another offseason surgery, this time on his shoulder, and cornerback William Gay, who can become an unrestricted free agent in March. Neither is Pro Bowl material, but both good enough if they can find a major upgrade somewhere — in the draft or even, alas, in free agency.
The outlook is much brighter elsewhere on defense. Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are two of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the league, and their young linebackers improved as the season progressed. All three of their young linebackers played well at the end of the season — Jarvis Jones, to an extent rookie Bud Dupree and particularly Ryan Shazier.
That defense, while ranked 18th in the NFL in yards per play, ranked 11th in points per game. They were eighth in sacks per pass play, finishing with 48 total after a 25-year low of 33 in 2014. Their 30 forced turnovers were nine more than 2014, many at crucial times in the shadow of their own end zone.
There is not much to analyze on offense. They will welcome back two injured All-Pros, Maurkice Pouncey and Le’Veon Bell, the latter entering the final year of his contract. Joining them again will be Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton and, of course, Ben Roethlisberger.
Beachum, their starting left tackle before he was hurt, will become a free agent along with guard Ramon Foster, so decisions must be made there. Beachum could sign a one-year contract, compete with Alejandro Villaneuva for his old job and possibly be in better position for a long-term deal after 2016.
Kicker Shaun Suisham, whose season ended with a torn ACL in the first preseason game, likely lost his job to 24-year-old Chris Boswell, especially since Suisham’s salary of $2.4 million can be saved.
Otherwise, they are set on offense. They have work to do on the cap, as usual, but it will rise by nearly $10 million in 2016. They also no longer have the weight of dead money they carried in 2015 for LaMarr Woodley of $8.6 million, Troy Polamalu of $4.5 million and Josh Scobee of $2.5 million.
The primary goal, though, is an obvious one — fix the secondary, and that seventh Lombardi Trophy remains within their reach.
Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.
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