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New Steelers secondary preparing for 2018 ‘Splash Party’

The once-maligned unit could be primed for a breakout season in the turnover category.

NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Jacksonville at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last few years, there have been times when the Steelers’ secondary looked out of sorts, confused and out-manned. But the Steelers’ front office has bolstered the secondary with a mix of youth and experience in efforts to take that ‘Stairway to Seven.” I believe this infusion of talent will make a huge splash in 2018, in more ways than one.

First, let’s recap the construction of the 2018 Steelers’ secondary.

2015: Secondary talent

In the opening game of the 2015 season, the secondary left Rob Gronkowski running free on several occasions en route to a 28-21 loss. It wasn’t the fact of the Steelers’ defenders simply getting beaten — it was a matter of them getting lost.

The secondary that night comprised Will Allen, Mike Mitchell, and young corners Cortez Allen and Valentino Blake (with veteran William Gay).

For the night, Rob Gronkowski had five receptions for 94 yards and a whopping three touchdowns.

The Steelers shook that opening game off, advanced to the playoffs and went on to virtually shut down Peyton Manning in a road Divisional Round game. If not for an untimely fumble (Fitzgerald Toussaint) while leading late in the fourth quarter, who knows what might have transpired in terms of post-season success. But the Steelers were eliminated from the playoffs that evening in Denver.

2016: Secondary infuses youth

There was no doubt the Steelers had one of the best offenses in the NFL with the Killer B’s of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. The defense, however, and especially the secondary, was still in a state of flux.

The transformation to today’s Steelers’ secondary began in earnest with the 2016 draft. The Steelers drafted Artie Burns (CB) of the “U” and Sean Davis (S/CB) out of the University of Maryland with their first two selections. Both players received baptism by fire and started early and often. Sean Davis even played a little slot corner through injuries and eventually settled in at Safety.

These tweaks, additions, and experiments seemed to work well, in that the defense, and mainly the secondary, began to complement the Steelers’ offense wonderfully.

That was until the AFC Championship game against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. This talented, athletic but woefully young secondary of Mitchell, Davis, Burns, and Ross Cockrell was shredded into confetti by Tom Brady, to the tune of 384 passing yards and three touchdowns. The passing game still destroyed the Steelers’ secondary. This loss was chalked up to the youth of the secondary. While Ross Cockrell had been touted as an extremely intelligent player, his on-field production slipped and he would no longer be a Steeler after this fiasco.

Although the move was kept relatively quiet, the Steelers acquired Slot Corner phenom Mike Hilton in his rookie year and stashed him on the practice squad to prepare for the 2017 campaign. But he never hit the field in 2016.

2017: Who’s gellin?

The 2017 Steelers went 13-3 and were one bad call away from home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Nonetheless, the Steelers earned a first place bye and a Divisional Round home game. This year they drafted Cam Sutton (CB) From Tennessee in the third round and project-CB Brian Allen from Utah.

This secondary rebuild was strongly aided by the Cleveland Browns virtually gifting the team perennial all-pro (CB) Joe Haden — cutting him just before the start of the season. In non-Steeler fashion, they jumped on the opportunity and signed Haden, out-of-town, to a lucrative 3-year deal. Unfortunately, Haden broke his leg late in the season. While he did return to play late in the season, the missed time negatively impacted the gelling process that the secondary was going through.

The 2017 Steelers defense was, bend-but-don’t-break as they gave up a ton of splash plays to offenses all year long, but the team kept winning. This was compounded by the loss of Ryan Shazier to a horrific spinal injury early in the season. The entire team rallied around Shazier; they cried for Shazier; and they played hard for Shazier. They truly “Shalieved,” on all fronts. Nevertheless, they still need to improve the secondary to win a Super Bowl.

They learned this the hard way in a 45-42 loss to Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars where a secondary in which they’d invested two high-round 2016 draft picks, plus two mid-round draft picks, still needed refinement.

Bortles kept key drives going in this game with huge third-down conversions and then hit a back-breaking deep shot late in the fourth quarter to set up the TD which helped seal the win.

Back to the drawing board

In a move that shocked all NFL Draft prognosticators and insiders alike, the Steelers drafted (CB/S/LB) Terrell Edmunds of Virginia Tech in the first round. They bypassed Ronnie Harrison of Alabama, who most analysts ranked higher than Edmunds and Justin Reid of Stanford.

Pittsburgh always tries to draft “Steelers,” so I trust them with the Edmunds pick here. Also, they’ve had tremendous success drafting college Juniors. Google them, there are too many to name in this column. Furthermore, Terrell’s Dad, Ferrell Edmunds, has an NFL pedigree, as he starred for years as Dan Marino’s go-to tight end.

Safety Mike Mitchell, who also was considered a “Steeler,” was released in the offseason but has seemingly been replaced by another free-agent acquisition and veteran, Morgan Burnett. Burnett seems to be a temporary-but-talented stopgap measure at safety, while the young safeties, also including Penn State’s Marcus Allen (fifth round) mature and develop.

Thus, going into the 2018 season, 2016 picks Burns and Davis are seasoned and have played in four playoff games. The 2017 draft pick, cornerback Cam Sutton is expected to see the field more in 2018 after enduring injuries last season. Project-CB Allen is making strides, and we should keep in mind that the last project player at CB was Ike Taylor. Burnett (S) has seen countless playoff games in Green Bay, while young safeties Edmunds and Allen will simply get in where they happen to fit this year and, ideally, play bigger roles going forward.

Just do it with flexibility

The secondary players mentioned in the previous paragraph are all uber-athletic and flexible. Collectively, these interchangeable parts will allow the Steelers to play better/stronger/faster against the 4-wide receiver sets that have haunted them in the past.

They might play with 2-4 safeties at times, with Edmunds or Allen playing Monster-back (hybrid safety/linebacker). This incredible infusion of young talent gives Pittsburgh the depth and pieces they need to continually and aggressively blitz unsuspecting quarterbacks, while stuffing the run and finally — covering Gronk.

They’re set now to make continual splash plays of tsunamic proportions!