The Steelers secondary came together in 2019 and became one of the top units in the NFL. The addition of Teryl Austin to the coaching staff, the signing of Steven Nelson and the trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick took the Steelers pass defense from below average to elite. In 2022, there aren’t many of the key players from that group left. Nelson and Mike Hilton left after the 2020 season, and both Terrell Edmunds and Joe Haden are currently free agents. That leaves only Minkah Fitzpatrick and Cameron Sutton from that two year run of elite secondary play. Sutton has moved from the dime back role to starting outside, and Minkah Fitzpatrick remains the teams star free safety.
But heading into the 2022 NFL Draft there are a lot of questions about how good this secondary can be, and specifically if they can reverse the drop off they experienced in 2021 and bounce back to being one of the top pass defenses in the NFL.
Let’s look at the players the Steelers currently have and see what they have, and what they should be looking for to bolster the secondary in the draft and free agency.
Minkah Fitzptrick: Not much needs to be said about Fitzpatrick. Since he joined the Steelers in 2019 the Steelers have been one of the best defenses against deep passes in the NFL, and Fitzpatrick has deservedly been a First Team All-Pro safety in two of his three seasons with the Steelers. In the only season he wasn’t recognized he led the Steelers in tackles as the run defense fell apart around him. He’s the star of the Steelers secondary.
That’s it for locks. Every other player is facing competition for snaps or their spot on the roster.
Levi Wallace: The Steelers free agent from the Buffalo Bills is best described as Joe Haden circa 2019 with less playmaking ability. He’s a natural cover-2 corner, and is well equipped to plug into Haden’s spot on the defense where his short yardage coverage ability and tackling are a strength, but will need some help covering deep threats.
Cameron Sutton: Sutton enters year two of his two-year deal which saw him move from an elite dime back to the No. 2 corner spot. He was fine in that No. 2 corner spot, taking over the role Steven Nelson played in 2019 and 2020. But when other players were injured, Sutton lost a lot of the help he needed to succeed, and didn’t look as good. Sutton would benefit from a true No. 1 corner being on the roster, or sub package players that don’t need a lot of help. Sutton isn’t a guy you want on an island, but outside of that, he’s well-rounded and a good corner.
Akhello Witherspoon: Witherspoon is the best man coverage defender on the team, and that’s an important designation. Witherspoon is also really good in deep zone coverage. His weakness is his physicality and tackling that make him a serious liability in run defense and in short zone assignments that involve defending wide receiver screens, running backs in the flat, and sealing off outside runs. Witherspoon has coverage-ability to be a No. 1 corner, but whenever he has taken on that role, teams attack his weakness aggressively. If Witherspoon can be protected from short responsibility and physical demands he’s an incredible coverage specialist, but this is football, and that’s not an easy task.
The Steelers top three corners are all players who need help to really shine, and while that help is readily available in many sub-package schemes the Steelers use, the starting outside corners don’t get much help at all.
Arthur Maulet: Maulet is a solid nickel back. That doesn’t look great in Pittsburgh because fans have become used to very good slot corner play, with Mike Hilton, William Gay before him and DeShea Townsend before that. Maulet is physical and solid in short coverage, and like most nickel backs, needs help when his man is running deeper routes.
Tre Norwood: The Steelers 7th round pick in 2021 was drafted to play the same role he played in college, where as a safety he played almost the exact same role Cameron Sutton played in dime packages for the Steelers in 2019 and 2020. With Sutton moving outside, Norwood stepped right in and took over that role and played well. How he evolves as a defensive back will be something to watch, especially if he can compete for the nickel role, but if he’s just a top tier dime back and backup safety that would be fine as well.
James Pierre: The only UDFA to survive the 2020 COVID-19 affected offseason, Pierre played well in the few snaps he received in 2020, and earned a rotational spot on the roster in 2021. A good zone defender, Pierre was overmatched when injuries put him in the starting job and he was tasked with covering a receiver like Ja’Marr Chase in man. He ended up losing his spot in the rotation entirely after the Bengals game. If Pierre can improve in man coverage, he could earn that spot back, if not he’ll need to compete for a depth spot where the Steelers can use him more selectively.
In the Mix
Justin Layne: Layne played a decent amount in the 2020 season, but ended up losing his role in the rotation to James Pierre. In 2021 he was almost exclusively a special teams player, but I would rate him as solid in special teams, and that may not be enough to even stick around on the roster. Layne is entering the last year of his rookie contract, 2022 will be a critical season for Layne to carve out a spot for himself in the NFL. He’s primarily a man cover corner, but needs to either improve to a higher tier man cover specialist, improve his zone coverage ability to round out his defense or become a top tier special teams player to hold value in the NFL going forward.
Linden Stephens: Stephens didn’t play in 2021, but he has played for other teams before, logging 65 snaps on defense, mostly at outside corner, and 189 snaps on special teams in 2019 and 2020 combined. He’s a player that has benefitted from the changes in rules on the practice squad, and that puts him in position to continue to compete to make a roster.
Donovan Stiner: A 2021 UDFA, Stiner was signed to the practice squad and stuck around all season, earning a futures contract at the end of the season. A safety who also played in the slot in college, there is plenty of opportunity for Stiner to earn a bottom spot on the roster or stick around on the practice squad in 2022.
Safety or Linebacker?
Not going to cover them individually, but the Steelers signed three players to new deals this offseason who fit into a safety/linebacker hybrid role.
Marcus Allen, Myles Killebrew and Karl Joseph are all box safeties that skirt the line between defensive back and linebacker. Allen and Killebrew were both top 5 special teams players by snaps in 2021. None of the three are going to be starters, but it is highly doubtful the Steelers signed all three just to play special teams.
Bryan Flores has used safeties up on the line of scrimmage as blitzers in his defenses, and Terryl Austin has used Marcus Allen and Myles Killebrew in sub packages as linebackers, bigger dime backs and a few times as outside corners versus a heavy alignment from the opposing offense.
It will be worth watching to see if the role for these players expands in 2022.
Where should the Steelers be looking to add talent?
There is a clear need for a starting strong safety, and it is a position the Steelers have admitted they don’t have on the team right now. That position could be considered filled after the team reportedly signed Terrell Edmunds to a one-year contract last Friday. However, I doubt anyone would consider the position of safety off the board at this point.
Beyond that, there is clearly room to add a top tier corner in this draft. The Steelers essentially have three No. 2 corners on their roster, and could easily let a top tier prospect start slowly and move into almost any position in the defense, nickel, No. 2 starter, No. 1 starter, any spot would work.
It would be a fantastic situation for a young corner to come into, especially after the Steelers brought back Edmunds. Fluidity to play wherever best fits them right away and throughout the season, with great safety play behind them to help them transition into the NFL, and that’s ignoring the pass rush in front of them that also helps make any corner’s job easier. I think a cornerback in Round 1 or 2 for the Steelers would fit and it would be a great environment for that player to develop in.
I don’t think later picks make a lot of sense as the defensive back group has a lot of depth, and is really only missing a top corner and potentially a future starting strong safety.