It's obvious that the Steelers need another Edge Rusher. That's a given. But I think we all agree that the Steelers could also use another piece or two to finish building their modern version of an ideal defensive secondary. This article asks the following question: which secondary piece(s) would make the most sense? An ILB linebacker with special strengths in coverage, such as Haason Reddick from Temple? A box safety, which is basically another way of saying the same thing but with a different emphasis? (We've discussed Melifonwu and Nacua, but there are others. Jabrill Peppers is obviously both). A free safety prototype? A boundary corner? Some kind of slot corner?
Here is my analysis of each option, offered less because it is "right" than because I want to get feedback from those who know the game better. My bottom line is that we really want a superb athlete or two as a final piece for the secondary, and there are ways for Coach Butler to use such an athlete regardless of which position he plays. The fact that a special talent at any position would be enough to make the difference also means, in inverse, that getting a "special" player matters far more than the position he plays.
NOTE: Part of this is based on my belief about the play of our Buck linebackers, the aging Lawrence Timmons and his backups Vince Williams and Tyler Matakevich. I do not think Timmons was an actual "liability" in coverage last year because he was so reliable about his reads. His loss of a step showed up in plays where he got beat, but overall he was always trying to do the right thing and thus had very few actual blunders where he was responsible for someone being uncovered. The championship game might have been his worst in that regard. I also think that Vince Williams today plays more or less at the same level as Timmons plays today. Tough; savvy; great at run stuffing; does the dirty work that frees up Shazier to make plays; reliable about heading the right way in coverage; but limited in his ability to actually accomplish that coverage against a well executed route and throw.
With that said, here are my thoughts:
Coverage ILB. Would replace the Buck on pass downs, and added value as a backup to Shazier (who really doesn’t have one). Question: How much help would the pass defense get from subbing a Reddick in for Timmons/Williams? This gets at scheme questions beyond my expertise.
Box Safety. A smaller and even more pass-oriented version of the coverage ILB. A great talent like Peppers would excel in both capacities, which is why he offers so much value and is likely to go so early. A lesser talent would be a backup for both Shazier and the starting safeties, but might end up doing an inadequate job in both capacities.
Coverage Safety. Both Mitchell and Davis can play in the box as well as they can in coverage. A coverage-focused safety would make the Big Nickel package of three safeties really viable, and allow a Butler to disguise and mix up his schemes far better than he currently can. Added value as a backup to the starters. A great talent could even push Mitchell into the #3 spot, where he’d be enough to make this position a major strength. NOTE: Our final CB option, Shabazz, is 6'2" and big enough to serve this function, but he hasn't shown the ability to do so yet.
Corner good enough to be a #1. My main man Ross Cockrell is a very solid #2 corner, and it looks like Burns will grow into a true #1. Having a second shut-down, #1-quality corner could make coverage into a dominant strength instead of being "merely" solid. Strengths like that can also hide deficiencies in the rest of the defense, by giving the pass rush more time, allowing more blitzers, and letting us move a safety into the box for run support. Yes, teams would not be utterly stymied because there are "man beater" routes that force more off coverage, but they can't do that all the time without getting predictable. This would also provide depth against the serious of phantom "ifs" that bedevil fans because we have no access to what happens in practice and on medical reports. These include how close Gay is to retiring; whether Gilbert will flunk out; whether Golson's fragility will continue; and whether Shabazz can be a viable boundary corner if one of the starters gets hurt.
Slot CB (coverage version). What Golson was supposed to be. It’s not the archetype receivers who keep killing us, it’s the super quick slot guys. Super quick counters are the obvious answer, and if Golson’s out and/or Gay retires we will be short in this department.
Slot CB (tackling version). What Willie Gay provides. It’s almost like having a hybrid safety, and is really useful at countering the teams who want to spread the defense out and then run. I question Golson's ability to do this. He was a willing enough tackler in college, but always more of a coverage expert. He is also small and light to begin with, and we now have to worry that he’s fragile.
Again, the takeaway is obvious: The Steelers could really use a superb athlete or two as a final piece for the secondary, and there are ways for Coach Butler to use such an athlete regardless of which position he plays. This is intended as a forum for deeper look at which type of player would give the most bang for the buck, and hopefully some discussion about which prospects fit each of the various archetypes.