There was a lot of speculation throughout the off-season surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers’ secondary. With the off-season departures of Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton, General Manager Kevin Colbert, head coach Mike Tomlin, and Defensive Assistant/Secondary Coach Teryl Austin had their hands full with scouting talent to fill those voids in the defense. Fast forwarding to the preseason, we saw a plethora of player combinations in the secondary in different packages and the Steelers took every week to determine the most effective combination to shut down opposing offenses. Looking at the regular season games, it looks like this trend has continued. Now that the first six weeks have come and gone, how has the secondary faired?
Let’s take a look at some quick and easy numbers and compare the 2020 squad to this year’s. Through the first six games last year, the secondary allowed a total of 1,305 yards through the air and gave up 11 touchdown passes. Looking at this year, the secondary has allowed a total of 1,468 passing yards and 11 touchdowns. Outside of the 163-yard difference in totals, they still haven’t been able to slow opposing quarterbacks in the “scoring” category. Now, let’s see some early trends. In all of 2020, the Steelers’ secondary held opposing offenses to a 56.7 completion percentage and averaged 6.6 yards per attempt. For reference, only the Los Angeles Rams, Baltimore Ravens, Washington Football Team, and San Francisco 49ers allowed a lower average. Looking at the first six games of this season, the Steelers have allowed a 65.6 completion percentage with an average of 7.4 yards per attempt. Although that average yardage is pretty much in the middle of the rest of the league, this is still a negative trend in improving the secondary.
Earlier this week, Coach Austin spent some time with members of the media to talk about what he’s seen so far this year and where his focus is leading into the bye week. He was first asked about the performance of 7th round rookie Tre Norwood and how he’s faired in his first bit of NFL action. Austin explained:
“Tre’s been doing well. He gets better with more experience; really sharp player so you don’t see him making the same mistakes twice, which is good. He’s really been coming into the dime personnel because we like his pass savvy and his route recognition skills.” When asked about his toughness translating to the NFL level of play, Austin said, “Toughness is not an issue with him. He’ll come and tackle you. Things have showed up in the preseason in space where he went against some really fast guys, he’s got to improve in that area. But in terms of what we’re asking him to do at this point in the season, he’s been doing well.”
One major note we’ve seen in the defense so far is the lack of turnovers. Specifically, interceptions. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick has been unusually quiet and this is starting to make Steeler Nation anxious. Coach Austin was asked about what he’s seen from Fitzpatrick and if he is concerned in his lack of interceptions:
“It’s quiet in terms of turnovers, but he does a lot more for us in terms of what he does on the back-end and getting us lined up and direction, so he doing I don’t think what he wants and we’re expecting a little more in terms of turnovers and all of that stuff, but it’s going to come. A guy like him who is a really good player and the turnovers will come.” Austin concluded by proclaiming, “I have no issue with Minkah Fitzpatrick and the value he brings to our team.”
The Steelers’ defense features a lot of top first round talent. Looking at the secondary, we see three former first rounders who are starting. With so much talent on one side of the ball, there are going to be high expectations set in terms of production. When asked about the expectations of the secondary, Austin replied:
“I think that there should be (higher expectations) in terms of how we play. Those guys were drafted ‘1’ for a reason and we expect them to play up to that level and I think that we’ve had a couple of glitches here and there, but I think overall our group is performing well, we’re operating well, we just need to make some more splash plays.”
As I mentioned earlier, this year’s secondary looks a lot different than last year’s and we’ve seen new faces rotate in and out of the defense. Austin was asked about the scheme they’ve been running in the secondary and what they’re game plan has been in determining if they’ve been trying to be unpredictable or finding the right combination of talent:
“I think it’s a little of both, in terms of trying to not go out there and have those guys say, ‘okay, he’s here, he’s here, he’s here, this is what we’re getting.’ And it was also a function of we lost a couple of people from last year and how do we fit these new people in; what do we have with these new people. And I think as time has gone on, we’ve figured out how these guys are in games; it’s easy to see. You might be able to see things in practice, but until you put them in a game situation and things are live, you don’t really know about a person.”
Looking back at the game versus the Seattle Seahawks, there were a lot of missed tackles in the secondary that led to extended drives and not getting off the field on third down. Naturally, Austin was asked about this. When he was asked about the poor tackling last week and whether or not he pays attention to it, Austin explained:
“We don’t gloss pass the problems and think they’re going to disappear. So what we did, is we always address things that show up, things that may show up later, and we addressed that obviously we’re not tackling our own guys, so it’s my job to put together some drills to help them get a little closer, get in a better position so we can make those tackles. It is never a function of toughness here, because you can’t play DB in this league if you can’t tackle.”
The Steelers will use the bye week to get healthy and recalibrate themselves as they make the turn into Week 8 when they take on the Cleveland Browns on Halloween.
What do you think of the secondary so far? Where do you think they need to improve most? Let us know in the comments below!