Knowing What We Don’t Know, Part One: Did the Steelers Fix the Secondary?


Coty Sensabaugh gets to be on the same team now…

By Ivan Cole

That was the question posed by Hombre in response to my last piece on the draft. The only responsible answer is, we don’t know. But in the sports matrix that we occupy, one where attitude often trumps facts, acknowledging ignorance can seem equivalent to weakness.

I have been thinking about a series that focuses upon our ignorance because I subscribe to the idea that ignorance is strength, in that it is the entry point to the path to wisdom. With that in mind I’d like to tackle some of the general assumptions that we make concerning the draft and related matters, as well as Hombre’s specific concern.

First question: Who says they weren’t a Super Bowl capable secondary last season? Specifically, did the secondary lose last season’s AFCCG, or did they just not win it?

It’s an important distinction when considering how areas of need are addressed going forward. Atlanta made it to the Super Bowl, and in the end Brady carved up their secondary like swiss cheese. As I have argued on several occasions, football, and especially defense, is ensemble work.

By all accounts, Joe Haden of the Cleveland Browns has been considered to be a very good defensive back. However, when confronted with a great receiver like Antonio Brown, in partnership with a great quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger, abetted by an offensive line that can give him more than three seconds (an eternity) to throw, Haden has often appeared to be incompetent. Would the answer be to find, if possible, an even better defensive back?

Mel Blount was a great cornerback. Playing behind Joe Greene and the other Steel Curtain defensive linemen undoubtedly made him better. In this sense, the best thing the Steelers might have done to improve their secondary play, regardless of how things turn out with Cameron Sutton and Brian Davis, is the acquisition of T.J. Watt. Solid front line play against the run and the past can mask a multitude of sins on the back end. Inadequate front line play can render the strengths of the back line irrelevant.

Second question(s). Let’s take the issue at face value, that is, that the quality of secondary play is dependent upon the personnel occupying the positions. Have the Steelers done enough to produce a group capable of supporting a Super Bowl run?

The responsible answer is, we don’t know. Time and discernment are real obstacles to the desire to render immediate judgments in these matters. The instant reassurance that we impatiently seek and are so irresponsibly promised in this acquisition phase of the football year is never satisfied, and can’t be, leading to a number of predictable reactions – over commitment, unwarranted pessimism or unwarranted optimism. “I am not quite as cavalier about the secondary. Can they go from getting carved up like swiss cheese by Brady to a Super Bowl-capable secondary in one off season?” [comment by Hombre de Acero to Ivan.]

If there was any justice in this world, talent pundits like Mel Kiper Jr. would be audited every fourth year after their various predictions and assertions. It is an accepted article of faith in these and other parts that it takes at least three to four years to properly evaluate a draft, yet the sports punditry is never subjected to that type of evaluation. This is probably one of the factors that leads some fans into various cul de sacs of arrogance, believing, among other things, that with passion, some time on your hands, and some access to some game tape, you too can be a crackerjack talent evaluator.

Ignoring, for example, the admonishments of know-nothings like the late Bill Nunn, that seeing certain players in person is a necessary difference than in just reviewing tape. This may be why teams employ armies of scouts.

Yet we are to believe that Kiper and Company, and perhaps you and me too, can circumvent all of that and democratize the process. Over commitment is one of the ways that our lack of understanding, or faith, in time and patience plays out.

Using our previous experience with offensive linemen as a guide, the strategy is selling out and throwing everything you can get your hands on at the wall until something sticks. The Steelers have committed four draft picks in two years, including a 1st, 2nd and 3rd to defensive backs.

For many this is not nearly enough. They didn’t trade up for better bodies, or down for more, made one middling free agent acquisitions, or (and for some this is not hyperbole) did not devote each and every draft pick to the defensive secondary. Forget about other needs. Like, for instance, how the secondary wasn’t addressed when we were on the make for offensive linemen.

Often, we are annoyed because the team didn’t pick someone whom we were sweet on. Again, what could those scouts, whose mortgages are dependent upon their discernment, possibly know that me and Mel Kiper don’t?

For established players, this is the Dan Snyder approach. If Pittsburgh didn’t go after Malcolm Butler how serious can they possibly be? And if the pundits aren’t touting them at the top of their boards…? This brings us to fan discernment…or hysteria in some cases.

Remember when fans wrote off Marcus Gilbert when it seemed that all he could do is knock his teammates out of games, and Kelvin Beachum when he had a less than stellar first training camp? More recently, and targeted, folks had their doubts about Artie Burns when he was drafted and Sean Davis throughout the first half of last season. Now we have two draft picks, that, truth be told no one, or more importantly Mel, hasn’t seemed to have heard of, so for some, expectations are already low.

Pessimism can develop its own momentum. Golson is a bust. Ross Cockrell has no upside to exploit. Coty Sensabaugh. Who ever heard of him? So, for some the fear is that the Steelers have done nothing of significance to address their secondary issues, or not enough.

Now all the possibilities just mentioned could be true, or none of them. It can hard to trust what fans think these days. Some of this can be placed at the feet of the sports entertainment culture, the rest on the general downside of social media. There have always been inane ideas that have been floated by fans. In the old days, most of those things didn’t travel far beyond a bar stool in Munhall. But today, it can go global in nanoseconds.

As barflies, middle school GMs and other addled individuals who have become emboldened because they might have thought they were crazy, but now have discovered that out of seven billion souls they have found others who agree with them (Writers note: That doesn’t make you sane, it just means you are, unfortunately for humanity, not alone.) This silliness has now gone viral and reached the eyes of Hombre in Argentina, who is traumatized and feels compelled to respond. And therefore, we have ongoing discussions concerning whether Ryan Shazier is a safety trapped in a linebacker’s body…or is it the other way around?

Let’s consider the controversy surrounding wide receiver and tight end. Some would say that the loss in the Conference Championship game had more to do with the inadequacies in the receiver corps rather than the secondary. And with Markus Wheaton gone, and Martavis Bryant skating on very thin ice, the possibility that Super Bowl hopes will depend upon Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton and the mangled fingers of Sammie Coates would be concerning to some. Yet, the drafting of JuJu Smith-Schuster is viewed by many as an unjustified indulgence.

Many of the same folk are stressing over the lack of an investment in a tight end. This is somewhat understandable. Last season fans were faced with the loss of both Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, with the designated replacement, Ladarius Green, injured through most of the season, and his future uncertain. On the other hand, tight end was one aspect of the team that performed at or above expectations. Green, when available, didn’t disappoint. Jesse James and Xavier Grimble both grew beyond expectation. David Johnson has always been an underrated, underappreciated contributor. Even if the worst-case scenario plays out with Green, the position is hardly in crisis.


  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    TE has become something of a glamour position in the NFL as of late meaning it is more difficult to grab choice/splashy players and
    a team can only shore up so many positions at a time. BPA that fits needs means you don’t fill the TE depth chart with Jesse James clones when you have more pressing problems.

    There is as much or more depth at TE as there was for most of last year and at least two younger of those players have had a another off-season of conditioning and reflection to improve their performances. I think TE, while not all-pro level, will suffice.


  • I’m really looking forward to seeing the continued development of Burns and Davis this year.


  • Great article (as always) Ivan.

    Let me add some context to the comments which inspired this column.

    Let’s begin by accepting that the secondary has been a primary weakness of the Steelers for some time. A writer whom, I think we all respect, Tim Gleason, aka Mary Rose, from the Golden Age of BTSC, was saying going into the 2011 Draft that the Steelers might consider going all out to get a corner.

    I believe if you Google “Cornering the market Mary Rose” you’ll find is article.

    Certain segments of the Steelers Nation citizenship are of course upset that the Steelers didn’t sell out to get a corner or a safety sooner. Word is the Steelers wanted Justin Gilbert in 2013. Cleveland got him instead. The Steelers did get Shazier. Anyone got any buyer’s remorse there?

    I tend to agree with Jim Wexell that, well Colbert and company had to start the rebuild somewhere.That meant something had to come last.

    Did the Steelers secondary prevent them from getting to the Super Bowl last year?

    On its own, no.

    In fact, I’d argue that the improved play from Burns, Davis and Cockrell was one of the various forces that led to the 9 game winning streak. But it is also true that this unit struggled against Brady, as did the Atlanta secondary, when they got tired at least.

    So I accept that the Steelers have four quality starters in Burns, Davis, Cocrkrell and MItchell. After that, there are a lot of question marks. William Gay appears to be slowing and has been rumored to be moving to safety. After that we have a bunch of guys who’re rookies and/or complete unknowns in Steelers uniforms.

    My thinking is this:

    The Steelers lack of a true number 1 WR last year hurt the team, perhaps more than any deficiencies in the secondary. And as you point out, the secondary was hardly the only unit to “blame” for the debacle in the AFC Championship on the defensive side of the ball. People complained about the Steelers not blitzing enough. Well, I remember one clear blitz where they threw the house at Brady, and New England stopped the Steelers cold. (That was on the play where Brady hit the TE in the corner of the end zone when Robert Golden was the closest person and was at least 15 yards away.)

    With that said, I tend to think that the X factor you have in Bryant staying clean, Coates developing, Heyward-Bey showing he can contribute, JuJu contributing, and/or Ladarius Green contributing and staying healthy is more likely to result in a favorable outcome for the Steelers. (Although, to be frank, I think that Green should seriously consider retiring, for the sake of his mental health.)

    The odds don’t seem quite as good for the secondary.

    Does that mean they’ll fail. I hope not, and certainly do not wish them to.

    Does that mean that you can count me as someone who thinks the Steelers should have “Done something bold” (See Jon Leynard’s column on Steel City Insider, if you can) to trade up?

    No. Trading up can get you Santonio Holmes and Troy Polamalu and well, you really don’t care about who you don’t get if you get players like that. But trading up can also get you Alameda Ta’Amu and Shamarko Thomas, minus the picks you gave up to get those guys.

    Colbert and Tomlin know a lot more about when to trade up than I do, and when to simply stick to their boards.

    I’ve written more than I intended, and probably said less than I want to say, so I’ll end this here. Hope it clarifies things.


    • “The Steelers lack of a true number 1 WR last year hurt the team”

      Is this a typo? Ivan and I have a running joke from a few years ago when my lack of knowledge in player evaluation showed when I made a comment about AB and his role on the team. I’ll let him tell the story. He gets a kick from it. If it wasn’t a typo, please explain. I must be missing something deeper. Gracias….


    • ^^^^^THIS^^^^
      “Trading up can get you Santonio Holmes and Troy Polamalu and well, you really don’t care about who you don’t get if you get players like that. But trading up can also get you Alameda Ta’Amu and Shamarko Thomas, minus the picks you gave up to get those guys.”

      Bingo. Trading up can also get you Mitchell Trubisky. (ahem)

      This was an especially deep draft, so the idea of moving up in the first round had to be tempered by a knowledge that there would be some real talent available in rounds two and three. But the Steelers – with a better bottom half of the roster than most teams – had more need for quality than quantity. So they let the draft come to them in rounds one and two, and were unable to find a willing partner to trade up in later rounds. Homer expected them to, but if the asking price is too high, you say no. They said no.

      I think the secondary will be better, simply because Burns and Davis will have a full season under their belts. Both were woefully inexperienced at the start of last year, and viewed as works in progress. They worked like hell, both of them, and made enormous progress. Both have great raw talent, and great work ethic. Hopes for both of them are higher than ever.

      Heyward’s absence last season threw a lot of guys into the fire, and they delivered. That will pay dividends this year. Add Watt to the mix, and the D – with Wreck-It in there – should be able to do an even better job of controlling the LOS while – most importantly – putting more pressure on the QB.

      The key to this defense, as we have seen, is the ability to pressure the QB. If he is running for his life – or if he is a Matt Moore Bobblehead Doll – then the secondary looks like all-pros. If he is getting Tom Brady protection, the secondary is a bunch of bums.

      The big gamble here is that Heyward’s return and the addition of Alalu will make the front three dominant, and Watt and the young LB’s will perform well enough that VW will be able to adequately replace LawDog.

      It will be an interesting July and August in Latrobe, as we get our first look at the Fab Five (Watt, JuJu, Sutton, Conner, and Dobbs), and see what they look like in the pro game.

      Can’t wait!


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