Intense worry about the state of the Steelers secondary was assuaged over the weekend when the Steelers acquired CB Brandon Boykin in a deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. Suddenly, there seemed to be hope for the Achilles of the defense. And the people rejoiced.
Entering his fourth season with the Steelers, defensive backs coach Carnell Lake is now facing another personnel problem just days after fans breathed a collective sign of relief at the prospect of having a seasoned veteran with proven playmaking abilities in the defensive backfield.
With the situation at cornerback looking better, the safety position raised anxiety levels yesterday in practice as Robert Golden went down with a knee injury. Mike Tomlin characterized it as "significant," which is a departure from his typically casual "we'll see" response to such situations. Jim Wexel is reporting Golden's ACL is fine, and that the injury is not season ending:
#Steelers safety Robert Golden is wearing a protective sleeve on his right knee/calf and limping slightly. ACL's OK, will not miss season.— James C Wexell (@jimwexell) August 6, 2015
On the other hand, the spate of injuries, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, has been a troubling trend so far this training camp. Mike Mitchell is out with a "tweaked" hamstring. Ross Ventrone is in a boot due to a lower-leg injury. Shamarko Thomas left practice injured earlier in the week.
Which safeties are healthy? Gerod Holliman, Isaiah Lewis, Will Allen, and Ian Wild. Of these players, Will Allen is the only one who has seen playing time in NFL games, though seventh-round draft pick Holliman has an attractive skill set that can only be enhanced through coaching. And, by "enhanced through coaching," I mean Carnell Lake needs to teach him how to tackle.
Is it crisis time for the secondary? No. The cornerback situation has greatly improved with the addition of Boykin, and news that Golden's injury may not have been season ending makes the situation a bit less bleak.
There are also two other factors that make this less of a crisis:
1) New defensive coordinator Keith Butler. Many agree that Dick LeBeau's playbook was both difficult for new players to learn and increasingly predictable for opposing offenses. Towards the end of his time with the Steelers, LeBeau did not seem to tailor his schemes to the personnel he had, as evidenced by the number of times players were either out of position or just straight-up confused. Can Butler adapt his defense more effectively than his predecessor to the level and ability of his players?
2) Troy Polamalu is gone. Hear me out. #43 was a legend, but he did not seem to mesh well with other players on the field. His keen ability to predict the future and improvise accordingly was an asset to the team in many ways. On the other hand, players like Mike Mitchell did not have the same superpowers and often appeared directionless and out of position. Sure, Troy would flail his arms and direct traffic like a New York City traffic cop in attempts to help is teammates, but he was often met with a "say what?" expression. I'm not insinuating Polamalu was a liability. I'm only pointing out that his level of play was so much higher than his teammates that calling complex that plays appropriate for someone of Troy's ability resulted in some confusion and ineptitude from the other players.
In sum, the personnel problems in the secondary, specifically at safety, could be mitigated by a simpler, more Barney-level defense that is well-suited to the ability level and experience of the players. One that won't result in safeties showing off their WTH-faces while Polamalu magics himself all over the field and attempts to be in four places at once-- often successfully, but not an ideal situation by any means.
The secondary doesn't need to be the best. It just needs to be good enough. And right now, there is no reason to assume it can't be.