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Why Sean Davis might be the most important player on the Steelers’ 2019 defense

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The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2019 defense is a collective unknown, but Sean Davis very well might be the most important piece of the overall puzzle.

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

Count me among the many who were thrilled when the Steelers traded up in the first round of April’s NFL draft to select Michigan’s uber-talented Devin Bush. The need to draft a do-it-all linebacker has been glaring since the awful injury to Ryan Shazier in December 2017. Twenty-some games of scuffling to replace Shazier’s production created a fair amount of anxiety among the fan base. Although it’s too early to know for sure, the initial reports from training camp suggest Bush could be a collective dose of Prozac for the black-and-gold faithful.

If Bush can be a reasonable facsimile of Shazier this season, a prominent weakness will have been fortified. For this reason, it is tempting to call Bush the most important player for the Steelers defense in 2019. That’s a heavy burden to hang on the shoulders of a rookie, however, no matter how broad they may be. Besides, as important as it is to fill the Shazier void, there may be another position group who will be even more integral to the success of the defense: the safeties.

The duos the Steelers have employed on their back end since the Ryan Clark-Troy Polamalu pairing ended have been mediocre at best. When Clark was allowed to walk in 2013, the Steelers signed Carolina Panther free agent Mike Mitchell to replace him. Mitchell is a polarizing figure around these parts but, in fairness to him, he was put in a difficult position from the start of his tenure in Pittsburgh. A fierce hitter but marginal in coverage, Mitchell was asked to play free safety and to patrol more ground than he was capable of while Polamalu was used in his Tasmanian Devil-meets-Ronnie Lott role. Clark was a natural free safety with a deep understanding of Dick LeBeau’s complicated blitz and disguise schemes and thus knew how to compensate for playing with a non-traditional partner at safety. Mitchell was not. In short, he was lost next to Polamalu. The fact that Mitchell’s arrival coincided with Polamalu’s physical decline made matters worse.

Following Polamalu’s retirement, Mitchell was paired with a host of players. Robert Golden, Shamarko Thomas, Will Allen and Sean Davis all started opposite the veteran at various times between 2015-2017. The first three were patchwork players at best while Davis, a second round pick who played cornerback his senior year at the University of Maryland and was getting reacquainted with the safety position, had a steep learning curve. Mitchell, meanwhile, lost a step or three and was not resigned when his contract expired after the 2017 season.

This prompted the Steelers to draft Virginia Tech safety Terrell Edmunds in the first round in 2018 and to pair him with Davis. Edmunds, like Davis, had a lot to learn and started slowly. By mid-season, however, he had progressed significantly. The Steelers expanded his role to include reps at the box safety position they had initially prescribed to free agent signee Morgan Burnett. They even included Edmunds on some six-man blitz concepts. Edmunds flashed as a box player while steadily improving his skills on the back end. Many in the organization are now confident he can become a playmaker at safety in the mold of Polamalu.

Davis, meanwhile, has had an uneven tenure in his three seasons in Pittsburgh. Like Mitchell, Davis has suffered from circumstances beyond his control. Whereas Mitchell had unorthodox and unreliable partners at safety, Davis has been a victim of instability. Following his season at corner at Maryland, he played free safety as a rookie for the Steelers, slid over to strong safety in his second season and then back to free safety last year. Technically, that’s four position assignments in four years. It’s hard for any player, let alone a young one transitioning from college to the NFL, to master his craft when the requisite skill set and mental assignments keep changing. Throw in the fact that Davis has had just one season to develop chemistry with Edmunds and has been asked to anchor the back end of a defense that has been weak at inside linebacker in his time here, thereby increasing the demands on the safeties, and it is understandable why he has struggled at times.

Still, Davis has struggled. And those struggles have affected the outcome of games. The example people often point to is his hit on Joe Haden last season that jarred an interception out of Haden’s arms into the hands of the Chargers’ Keenan Allen for a momentum-changing touchdown in the 33-30 home loss to Los Angeles last season. I won’t fault Davis for that play, however. He was being aggressive as a cover-1 help player and just happened to arrive at the football as Haden did. That was a fluke play. Those things happen.

More problematic have been plays like this one:

Here, on a crucial 3rd and 7 in the 4th quarter of the crushing week 14 loss in Oakland last season, the Steelers are in a man-under two-deep look against an empty set from the Raiders. Davis is the safety to the top of the screen. I won’t swear I know how the Steelers are coaching Davis to read this play, but traditionally the free safety must work inside-out here, protecting the easiest throws like slant and working late to harder ones like corner and sideline routes. The alignment of the widest receiver to the trips should tell Davis that he is likely running some sort of inside cut since he is too wide to run anything else. Once the middle receiver goes inside, Davis should look to jump the slant from the outside receiver.

Instead, he inexplicably widens with the bench route from the tight end, who is covered well here by Morgan Burnett. This is a bad read by Davis, who runs himself out of what could have been a pass breakup that would have forced a field goal or even a game-changing interception. The Raiders would go on to score two plays later and inevitably win on a subsequent last-minute drive.

The play above might not look like a devastating error. It’s not. But it does demonstrate a fundamental lack of understanding of how the position should be played. Davis should know what to expect there based upon the situation, the alignment and the post-snap release of the Raiders receivers. The fact he jumps the route he is least responsible for is problematic.

Speaking of fundamentals, Davis’s tackling is a work in progress as well. Watch him here, aligned as the single-high safety, on this touchdown run in last December’s game against the Saints:

Too often we see Davis in poor position to make sound tackles. Here, in what is a bit of a recurring theme, his head is on the wrong side of the ball-carrier and he does a poor job of wrapping up. Tackling 101 instructs a defender to do a few basic things: chop your feet, get low, keep your head up, get you chest across the ball and wrap up. Davis literally does none of these. He takes long strides into the ball-carrier, compromising his balance; his head is down and on the wrong side; he doesn’t lower his center of gravity to create force to use at impact; and his “wrap” at the end is more of a lunge than an attempt at a tackle. This is poor tackling at every level of football.

It may sound as though I’m being harsh on Davis. I don’t mean to. I’m not here to bury him for mistakes like these since, in fairness, he has not yet had the positional stability nor repetitions to become great at what he does. And, depending on how much stock you put in things like PFF grades, Davis is coming off of his best season in 2018. His 69.8 grade put him in the middle of the pack at the safety position but was a significant upgrade from his score of 47.3 in 2017. That’s progress, which is always the goal in young players.

Still, Davis produced just one interception last season. Coupled with his occasional struggles in coverage and run support, he was neither steady nor impactful enough to be the player the Steelers need. With a year under his belt as Edmunds’ partner, and with the opportunity to play the same position two years in a row for the first time since his sophomore and junior years in college (and, from a motivational standpoint, let’s throw in the fact he’s playing for a new contract), Davis needs to make a leap in 2019. How he progresses, in fact, could either hold this defense back again or take it to the next level.

Here’s a quick look at how Davis’s development could impact the defense.

SCHEME FLEXIBILITY

If Davis improves as a true free safety, the Steelers will have the freedom to play a number of coverages and coverage disguises. Coverage disguise was the recipe they used to frustrate Tom Brady in their 17-10 win over the Patriots last season. Rolling from cover-1 to cover-2, or cover-2 to quarters, or masking cover-3 by showing cover-1, or any combination of the above appears to be the direction in which the coaching staff is headed.

As I wrote about last week when discussing the transformation of the defense the past few seasons, Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin are building more of a hybrid situational unit these days and relying less upon the Steelers’ traditional base schemes. To do this, they need a free safety who can communicate those disguises to the rest of the secondary and who can execute a variety of coverages. This will be especially true of Davis if the Steelers are to continue playing cover-1, something they’ve done with increasing frequency the past two seasons. A free safety who can make the right reads in man-coverage schemes provides underneath players the freedom to press a little tighter and be a little more aggressive with receivers off of the ball. And a free safety who is a reliable tackler and can insert himself for blitzing linebackers would likely encourage the staff to dial up more run blitzes. In short, the more security Davis offers on the back end, the more aggressive and deceptive the Steelers can be in their defensive approach.

TURNOVERS

Every coach in America preaches the importance of winning the turnover battle to his team. The results support that wisdom. Last year, the top seven teams in turnover +/- all made the playoffs, with the Super Bowl champs finishing fifth. In 2016 and 2017, it was ten of the top twelve with the champs finishing fourth and third, respectively. The Steelers produced just fifteen takeaways in 2018, which ranked 30th in the league, and their -8 turnover differential put them 28th. They did not participate in the post-season.

Davis, for his part, generated just one pick last year as he acclimated himself with a new playing partner and got reacquainted with the responsibilities at free safety. Edmunds had just one interception as well. The Steelers will have to get better production in this area from their starting safety duo in 2019.

A failure to generate interceptions is a product of several things. Scheme, positioning and an inability to catch the football are the most common culprits. Davis seems to have suffered most from positioning issues last season. Even in 2017, when he had a career-high three interceptions, two came on poor throws by the quarterback where Davis actually trailed a receiver. He has not shown great instincts on driving on footballs in the air or on anticipating routes.

Then again, how can we fault him when he’s been bounced around the defense like a Superball? It is said that familiarity breeds contempt but it also breeds competence as, in this instance, a player learns to recognize things faster and understands what to look for. A more comfortable, more confident Davis who can anticipate and react faster, and who gets himself into better position as a result of knowing his playing partner, will likely lead to an uptick in turnover production.

THE IMPORTANCE OF GREAT SAFETY PLAY

About that playing partner. The Steelers haven’t had a #1 and #2 draft pick as their starting safety duo since… ever? The closest I could find was the brief pairing of Anthony Smith, a third round pick in 2006 who is best remembered for trash-talking Tom Brady and then having Brady eviscerate him for it, and Polamalu, the top pick in 2003. Point being, the Davis/Edmunds duo represents the greatest amount of draft capital the Steelers have ever invested in the position. The talent is there. What will it take for the results to catch up?

Above all, it will take familiarity. Safeties work together in a fashion that is similar to offensive linemen. They must know where the other will be, who/what the other is responsible for and how to make adjustments in real time. In a defense like Pittsburgh’s, where the push for disguise and versatility means a good deal of fluidity, the most important thing the safeties must do is communicate. They must call out coverage adjustments based on formations, shifts and motions or even the pre-snap alignment of receivers. They must trade routes with each other and with the corners as receivers move through zones, or must read the quarterback’s eyes and anticipate his throw to provide help over the top. They must fit off of each other in the run game depending on whether they are a front-side fill or backside pursuit player. They are the back end of the defense. They must understand where the other is and must never get run behind.

If they can’t do these things, big plays occur. How impactful are big plays to a football game? A recent study by Sport Source Analytics showed that in 2018, 64% of college Division I teams scored a touchdown on a drive where they had a play of 20+ yards. Conversely, drives that failed to produce a play of 20+ yards resulted in a touchdown only about 20% of the time. These are college numbers but the point applies to football at every level: producing big plays leads to points; stopping them denies points.

According to Sharp Football Stats, the Steelers ranked 12th in the league last season in preventing explosive pass plays but just 20th against explosive runs. The run number is partially a product of sub-par inside linebacker play but tackling issues at safety contributed too. Safeties, more than any position group on the field, must protect against the big play.

Davis, as the free safety and the veteran of the duo, will command the most responsibility for improving on these numbers. His job will likely be made easier by the fact that Edmunds will be more comfortable this season. Davis will be able to worry more about his own responsibilities and less about getting Edmunds lined up correctly or into the right coverage. A more capable Edmunds should translate to a more capable Davis, as the maturation of the former allows the latter to narrow his focus. The value of this to the defense could be significant, as both players find that the familiarity they have in their second year together makes them faster, more instinctive players. When it comes to big plays, a single step can make all the difference on a football field. Often that single step is the product of a clearer mind.

The Steelers must have a good deal of faith in their young safeties to develop in all of these areas - Davis in particular- since they made no effort to fortify the position in the draft or free agency, save for the signing of AAF alumnus Kameron Kelly. The depth chart behind Davis and Edmunds is thin to say the least. That could speak volumes about what the staff anticipates from its starters.

For all of these reasons, Sean Davis could be the most important player on the Steelers defense in 2019. With the return of a stout defensive line and upgrades that appear to have solidified our linebacker and cornerback positions, the play of the safeties presents the biggest question mark for the coming season. Edmunds looks like a burgeoning stud. Davis? We shall see. There is no doubt the fourth year pro is a tremendous athlete with great physical skills. He is certainly capable of being the rangy, instinctive free safety the Steelers need. How far forward will some much-needed stability and familiarity allow him to leap in 2019? The answer to that question will have a significant impact upon the team’s success.