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3 major questions surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers’ secondary

The secondary is playing well and actually helping the Steelers win games; so what’s going on here?

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers are in the midst of what’s been a pretty remarkable six-game winning streak. The offense is as efficient as it is volcanic, finishing more than 75 percent of its red-zone drives with touchdowns and scoring at a 35 points-per-game clip. That an outfit featuring Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and the suddenly-unstoppable James Conner is producing at such an astonishing rate shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

What should surprise you is the abrupt vitality of the secondary, which was an overflowing trash barge during the first quarter of the season. This was a unit that, if you recall, allowed Patrick Mahomes to throw six touchdowns. Now, Mahomes is arguably the NFL’s MVP, and he’s ascended to league’s pinnacle by, duh, scorching the very earth upon which opposing secondaries stand. But Pittsburgh’s secondary is comprised of professional football athletes, so to allow anyone, MVP candidate or otherwise, to amass six touchdowns in a single game is a damning indictment of their abilities. (Amazingly, despite Mahomes’ performance, I’d argue that the Chiefs loss wasn’t even Pittsburgh’s nadir—that came two weeks later against Baltimore, a game in which the Steelers allowed Joe Flacco to throw for 380 yards and a pair of touchdowns at Heinz Field.)

In the Steelers past six victories, they’ve held the opposition to score just a hair over 18 points per game, and the secondary hasn’t allowed a 300-yard passer once during this stretch. That’s an incredible turnaround given that a) the opponents they faced—Atlanta, Cincinnati, Carolina, and even Cleveland—can sling the ball over the field and b) the cursed Artie Burns, who could not defend your grandmother one-on-one, has started two of these games. It’s a turnaround that evoked the following questions: Is that secondary actually good now?; Is Pittsburgh’s dramatic turnaround augmented by a confidence boost?; Is this success sustainable? Let’s chew on these for a bit.

Is the secondary...good?

Joe Haden is really good. Mike Hilton is good. Morgan Burnett, who the Steelers signed last offseason, has been pretty solid despite missing the beginning of the season with a bum hamstring. Sean Davis, a player who I was absolutely convinced was a BUM after his woeful performance down the stretch last season, has miraculously transformed into a serviceable free safety. Terrell Edmunds looks like a pretty nice player, I think. Coty Sensabaugh isn’t Darelle Revis, but seeing him matched up against a speedy secondary receiver doesn’t stimulate the same overwhelming sense of dread that’s customary during every one of Burns’s snaps.

What’s changed for the secondary over the past couple of weeks is that its kinda coalesced into a functional enterprise. Like, there’s definitely some adequate players in this unit, but we were very much cognizant of their adequacy even before the season started. The Steelers weren’t gonna throw money at Morgan Burnett if they didn’t think he could play, ya know? He isn’t Ladarius Green. Perhaps the defense, much like the offense, needed a second to get its footing.

Notable, too, are the early-season injuries to Burnett and Hilton. The timing of Pittsburgh’s resurgence with their returns to the lineup could be coincidental, but more probably they are likely very much responsible.

Conclusion: Yeah, I think the secondary is good...ish. You gotta remember that they just recently got everyone healthy, and since getting the gang back together they’ve looked like a different team than the one that was crushed by Joe Flacco.

Is confidence contributing to their success?

I’m of the (perhaps incorrect) opinion that placing too much emphasis on the unquantifiable aspects of a player’s skillset is a waste of time, but I think it would be unreasonable to suggest that confidence isn’t playing at least a supporting role in the secondary’s prosperity. There is science to support this!

According to sports psychologist Jim Taylor, confidence is not merely a contributor to an athlete’s success, but the single most significant mental factor in sports. Prime confidence, a specific type of of self-assurance that’s nearly inherent to professional athletes, is what enables athletes to remain confident even when their performance flounders. “Cornerbacks must have a short memory” is a pretty common football axiom, but it appears to be one rooted in validity.

(As an aside, I know I rip on Artie Burns a lot, but my hypothesis is that his struggles this season aren’t necessarily the result of him being a bad cornerback, but rather the result of his confidence bottoming-out. If he hasn’t already, he should probably think about speaking with a psychologist.)

Of course, prime confidence isn’t a thing that simply happens; it must be cultivated and refined by consistently fulfilling—and, in the case of the Steelers, exceeding—predefined benchmarks and objectives. So, what we have with the Steelers is a secondary that’s healthy and playing very well, which has thereby enabled them to gain confidence and, by extension, play confidently.

Is this sustainable?

I think maybe it could be, but this sustainability will be tested mightily against the likes of Los Angles, New England, and New Orleans. Pittsburgh’s last game, a 20-16 win over the Jaguars, wasn’t particularly illuminative in terms of further defining the secondary. The Steelers held Jacksonville’s offense to just a hair over 100 passing yards, but this was largely the result of the Jaguars’ steadfast refusal to throw the ball downfield. Denver’s offense is similarly reliant on the run, so we could be in store for much of the same this weekend.

Next week, though, the Steelers will host the Chargers, which represent the first of three (or four, depending on how badly you fear the Cincinnati Bengals) major hurdles standing between them and the postseason. Two weeks after that, they will host the vile Patriots, a team they have not defeated since 2011; a week after the Patriots game, they will travel to New Orleans to face the Saints, who are objectively the best, most fearsome outfit in the NFL. This is an admittedly facile schematic, but should the secondary manage to hold Phillip Rivers, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees to fewer than 300 yards and two or three touchdowns apiece and put the Steelers in a position to win each game, Pittsburgh will enter the playoffs probably as the no. 2 seed in the AFC and playing with a level of defensive confidence unseen since the earlier part of this decade.