The Pittsburgh Steelers added former Titan, Giant and Raider defensive back Curtis Riley to the roster. While most additions at this point of the season are camp fodder, Curtis Riley is a 28 year old with 19 starts at safety, and almost 1500 defensive snaps. He also has a connection to the Steelers.
Riley went undrafted in 2015, and ended up on injured reserve that season. In 2016 he made the Titans’ roster as the backup free safety for defensive backs coach Deshea Townsend. In 2018 Townsend went to the New York Giants as their defensive backs coach and brought Curtis Riley along, where he would end up winning the starting job.
Riley was benched in the last game of the 2018 season and the Giants did not re-sign him. Riley signed with the Raiders where he was the main backup safety and a special teams stalwart.
The Steelers’ safety depth is a weak area on the roster, and Riley joins the team as the most experienced depth safety in terms of on field experience. I wanted to take a look at his film and see what he could bring to the defense, and see what his odds of making the team are.
Riley played primarily deep safety for the Giants, and while he wasn’t a great safety, he was pretty solid.
2018 week 16, 3rd quarter, 10:30. Curtis Riley is the deep safety.
Curtis Riley gives a lot of ground here, but keeps T.Y. Hilton from getting past him and breaking this play for a TD. It isn’t the play you’d like from a free safety, but it is one you can live with.
2018 week 16, 4th quarter, 3:06. Curtis Riley is the deep safety.
On this play Curtis Riley adjusts to the route he is defending well, and comes up to force Andrew Luck out of bounds.
Curtis Riley doesn’t have the range you want from a single high safety, but he does flash some play-making ability from the middle deep zone.
2018 week 2, 3rd quarter, 3:34. Curtis Riley is the deep safety.
Curtis Riley is offset to the far hash on this play, but he adjusts to the route and is able to make the play on the ball for an interception.
Curtis Riley is even better in coverage when he isn’t the only deep zone defender.
2018 week 16, 1st quarter, 1:03. Curtis Riley is the deep safety to the top of the screen.
This route attacks the weakness in cover-2, and exploits the shallow coverage the middle linebacker is playing. Riley’s reaction and speed to the ball is good, and he’s there to limit any yards after the catch.
2018 week 11, 3rd quarter, 9:42. Curtis Riley is the deep safety to the top of the screen.
This is a good job playing as the deepest defender. He keeps Desean Jackson from getting behind him with a good backpedal, then fluidly turns, tracks the ball, and secures position to play the ball. Riley is very good at reading the ball in the air and making a play on it.
2018 week 16, 2nd quarter, 14:30. Curtis Riley is the deep safety to the top of the screen.
The slot defender blitzes, and Riley covers his man, charging in to make the tackle on the hot route. It isn’t a great tackle, but he brings down the receiver. This is something safeties in Pittsburgh are asked to do a lot.
The Steelers love safeties that can also cover slot receivers, and while Curtis Riley hasn’t done it a lot in the NFL, he has done it.
2019 week 11, 4th quarter, 5:11. Curtis Riley is the slot defender toward the bottom of the screen.
This isn’t the best coverage, but Riley stays close enough to the receiver to make it a difficult catch, and it ends up incomplete. Riley isn’t better than any of the top 4 cornerbacks or either starting safety in slot coverage, but he isn’t bad at all for a depth safety.
2019 week 17, 1st quarter, 5:17. Curtis Riley is to the right side of the screen, approaching the line of scrimmage.
Riley times up his blitz really well, and takes a good angle to the running back. Again the tackle isn’t a good one, he tends to grab at legs instead of wrapping them up, but it works here.
Tackling and special teams
We’ve covered a few examples of Curtis Riley using less than stellar tackling form, but it gets worse. Much worse.
2018 week 16, 2nd quarter, 5:40. Curtis Riley is the deep safety at the start of the play.
Riley runs up to help make the tackle, but flies past without making contact at all.
2018 week 17, 3rd quarter, 5:10. Curtis Riley is the deep safety to the bottom of the screen.
This play got Curtis Riley benched for the rest of the game, and Riley wouldn’t play for the Giants again, as they didn’t re-sign him. Several angles on these plays (there were more than just these two) look like Riley intentionally avoided contact. They show up a good bit at the end of 2018, I don’t know if there was a reason he was avoiding contact, but he recorded a lot of tackles, and while his form isn’t good and he misses a ton of tackles this extreme lack of effort doesn’t show up like this in other seasons, although he still misses on hits like this.
2019 week 11, 1st quarter, 9:30. Curtis Riley is the deep safety to the top of the screen.
Riley gives a lot of ground on this play to get away from the blocker and make the tackle on Joe Mixon. Again, Riley isn’t the guy you want making plays in the run game. He’s not a hitter, and he isn’t a good tackler, but he isn’t incapable of making tackles.
2019 week 14, 4th quarter, 7:53. Curtis Riley (#35) is to the right of the formation.
Curtis Riley was a staple on special teams in 2017 with the Titans and again in 2019 with the Raiders. He didn’t make many tackles, and he isn’t a very physical player on these plays, but you can see that he gets into his target and disrupts their route on the return even if he isn’t a violent player.
Curtis Riley brings a skill-set to the defense that the Steelers are lacking at the safety position. Minkah Fitzpatrick isn’t at his best in deep zone, but he’s by far the best safety in that role. Curtis Riley is also a really good deep safety, and I’d love to see him in the Steelers Cover-2, Cover-3 and quarters looks. He would give the Steelers a good option for those deep zones that isn’t Minkah Fitzpatrick or a cornerback.
The biggest problem with Curtis Riley is his tackling, and while his missed tackle rate is awful, he also has 121 tackles in 1,484 defensive snaps, averaging a tackle every 12.3 snaps. Fitzpatrick is a much better tackler and averages a tackle every 13.4 snaps, Cam Sutton every 14.4 snaps, and Terrell Edmunds every 10.9 snaps. If you factor in their missed tackles, Curtis Riley is much closer to Edmunds in attempted tackles than he is to Fitzpatrick or Sutton.
If Curtis Riley can be used more like Fitzpatrick and Sutton, and doesn’t show the contact aversion he did at the end of the 2018 season, he could carve out a niche on the Steelers’ roster as a deep zone specialist.