If someone had said early last September that the Steelers secondary was among the best units in the NFL, I would have called them crazy. At the end of the first two weeks, they were giving up an average of 320 passing yards per game, and were one of the main reasons the team found itself sitting at 0-2. But, on September 16th, the Steelers made a trade that suddenly turned a below average group into a force to be reckoned with. Minkah Fitzpatrick was truly the missing piece in a secondary which needed a center-fielding free safety. By the end of the season, the defense was allowing just 176.7 passing yards per game and only 17.3 points per game, virtually halving their numbers from before Minkah's arrival.
Recently, a few different big-name media outlets have given the Steelers some recognition for this transformation, noting their secondary is now one of the best in the league. First, PFF released their ranking of all 32 secondaries entering the 2020 season. The Steelers came in fourth, behind just the Ravens, Chargers, and Patriots. Just days later, NFL.com released a similar article in which they asked six of their analysts to describe which secondary unit they think is the best, and why. Adam Rank chose the Steelers, referencing their elite cornerbacks and, of course, free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Out of the other 5 votes, the Chargers and Ravens each received two while the Saints took one. So, with all of the praise the Steelers defensive backs have received, are they the best unit in the NFL?
Based on total passing yards allowed last year, the team ranks third behind the Patriots and 49ers. Additionally, the team was second in interceptions and allowed the second-lowest opposing passer rating. However, these broad metrics aren't a very good way to measure the secondary on its own. While the corners and safeties certainly have a huge impact on each of these statistics, linebackers and pass rushers also make a difference. The Steelers pass rush is among the best in the NFL, so it isn't fair to give the secondary all the credit for the Steelers finishing among the top 3 in all three of these categories.
A more appropriate metric would be Pro Football Focus's coverage grades from last season. Following Week 17, the Steelers were ranked fifth in the league with an overall grade of 90.0. Still, PFF rankings aren't always an accurate representation of what really takes place on the field. The best way to break down the secondary is probably to break it down by individual positions, rather than team statistics.
Starting with the cornerbacks, the Steelers are certainly in the conversation for having the best group in the league. The combination of Joe Haden and Steven Nelson on the outside with Mike Hilton in the slot is truly elite and rivaled by very few other teams. The Ravens and Chargers are the two biggest competitors after the Ravens traded for Marcus Peters last season and the Chargers signed Chris Harris Jr. in the offseason. The Ravens now have arguably the best one-two punch in the league, and the Chargers have unbelievable depth at the cornerback position. Still, one could argue that the Steelers trio is just as good as either of these units, especially given that all three of them (Haden, Nelson, and Hilton) made PFF's top 25 cornerback list from the end of last season.
The only other franchise with three players on the list was the Patriots, another team which needs to be in the conversation for having the best cornerback group in the NFL. Stephon Gilmore proved last season that he is undoubtedly the best corner in the league, and Jonathan Jones and Jason McCourty provide great depth for the Patriots. Not much separates all four of these cornerback units, and while most experts would not put the Steelers first among them, an argument for it could certainly be made.
Moving on to the safety position, the Steelers yet again have one of the better tandems in the league. Minkah Fitzpatrick is one of the top free safeties in the league and while Terrell Edmunds still has a lot to prove in terms of coverage abilities. Edmunds did finish last season with an impressive 105 combined tackles. In addition, the recent signing of Curtis Riley provides some important depth that wasn't there last year. When compared to the other teams with strong cornerback groups that we explored above, the Steelers stack up pretty well. The Patriots combination of Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung was a deadly duo, but Chung announced earlier this week that he will sit out the 2020 season, leaving their secondary much weaker than it otherwise would have been.
The Ravens are in a very similar position as the Steelers with Chuck Clark and Earl Thomas. Similar to Edmunds, Clark is a promising young player but is still unproven as a reliable starter. Thomas, like Fitzpatrick, is one of the top free safeties in the league. However, he is aging rapidly and leaving his prime while Minkah is just entering his.
Lastly, the Chargers have one of the best safeties in the league in Derwin James but not a clear free safety to compliment him. ESPN has Nasir Adderley penciled in as the starting free safety after he was drafted in the second round a year ago, but he hardly saw any playing time last year due to an injury.
Other than the Saints, the other teams with top safety tandems aren't flanked by as strong cornerbacks and therefore don't need to be considered when looking at who has the best secondary in the NFL. Marcus Williams and Malcom Jenkins make up a great duo for New Orleans, but outside of Marshon Lattimore, their cornerbacks are not quite on the level as the other four teams we have focused on.
Whether or not the Steelers secondary is better than that of the Chargers, Ravens, and Patriots is fairly subjective and certainly a very close call. If Terrell Edmunds can make some big strides this season and Minkah Fitzpatrick can continue to become more comfortable in his first full season in Pittsburgh, I don't think there will be any denying who has the best unit this time next year.
So who do you think has the best secondary in the league? Let us know in the comments.