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Steelers’ ball-hawking secondary was better than expected

A bright spot for the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers was their ball-hawking secondary.

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

This is the initial article in a series of reviews on how the Steelers’ positional groups fared in 2022. First up, the defensive backs, whose performance exceeded expectations in many regards.

Entering the 2022 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers looked poised for success up front on defense. Led by veteran stalwarts Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt, and bolstered by the addition of free agents Larry Ogunjobi and Myles Jack, the front seven appeared in good shape.

The secondary was another matter. The Steelers had a star at safety in Minkah Fitzpatrick, but his teammates on the back end all came with questions. Would Terrell Edmunds, who had re-signed on a one-year deal after finding no viable options in free agency, be an asset or a liability? Would new addition Damontae Kazee be the player who led the NFL in interceptions in 2018, or a journeyman on his third team in three years? Would Tre Norwood progress or regress as a late-round project?

At corner, Pittsburgh lacked a shut-down player. Cam Sutton was untested as a #1. Levi Wallace, signed from Buffalo in free agency, was a career #2. Ahkello Witherspoon had looked good in spurts but was inconsistent. James Pierre and Arthur Maulet were role players.

Concerns about how the unit would fare, then, were legitimate. They performed surprisingly well in an upset win over Cincinnati in the opener, picking off Joe Burrow four times. But then Pittsburgh lost consecutive games to Mac Jones, Jacoby Brissett and Zach Wilson — not exactly a Murderer’s Row of quarterbacks — before being blasted for 432 passing yards by Josh Allen and the Bills. A few weeks later, Jalen Hurts shredded them for four touchdowns in an Eagles rout in Philly. The Steelers were 2-6, with their flaws on the back end exposed.

They were a different group after the bye, however, morphing from a weakness into a strength. The defense finished the season tied for the league lead in interceptions. After surrendering at least 200 passing yards in each of their first eight games, they gave up more than 200 just once over their final nine. They had as many interceptions (12) as opposing touchdown passes over that span and went from 7.8 yards per pass to 5.7. It was a remarkable turn-around.

Here’s a breakdown of how the secondary performed in 2022, with some thoughts on the unit’s prospects moving forward.

A Tale of Two Seasons

It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.

Or something like that.

That’s how the season went for the secondary, anyway. Pittsburgh’s first half misery was the product of many factors, from ineffective man coverage to soft zones that were easily exploited to poor execution and communication. All conspired to create a pass defense that ranked near the bottom of the league in most meaningful metrics at the break.

Following the win in Cincinnati, nothing seemed to work. When the Steelers went Cover-1, they were picked apart. Different players were targeted each week by opposing offenses. Against New England, it was Wallace. Wallace made his chops as a Cover-2 defender in Buffalo but was not as capable in man-to-man. Mac Jones attacked him repeatedly, and with great success.

Here, Wallace was aligned on the left hash at the snap. He failed to get his hands on the inside receiver in New England’s trips set, giving him access to the middle of the field:

On the following snap, New England ran essentially the same concept, with the same result. If Wallace was expecting inside help, it never came.

A few weeks later in Philadelphia, Witherspoon was the target. Pittsburgh left him matched one-on-one against A.J. Brown, and Brown had a day, catching six passes for 156 yards and three touchdowns. Like Wallace, Witherspoon did a poor job of contacting Brown, giving him free releases. You can see him below, at the top of the screen, opening his hips and running with Brown rather than trying to jam him at the line:

At other times, Pierre and Maulet were picked on by opposing quarterbacks. They played the same feather technique as Wallace and Witherspoon. The Steelers were employing press coverage without actually pressing. It led to some miserable results.

Communication was another issue. There were coverage breakdowns at times, like on this snap from the Philly game. In the photo below, Edmunds was walked down in the alley as the Steelers played man to Philly’s twins set. Edmunds had the slot receiver, while Sutton took tight end Dallas Goedert, who was flexed out wide:

Philly ran a sucker play, faking a perimeter screen to Goedert. The slot came out like he was going to block Sutton, then continued up the sideline. I’m not sure if Edmunds and Sutton were supposed to stay with their men or make a switch call — it can be defended either way — but it can’t be defended like this. Both players attacked Goedert, which allowed the slot to run uncovered for an easy touchdown:

At other times, flaws in execution did them in. Take the 98-yard touchdown pass from Allen to Gabe Davis on the first possession of the Buffalo game. Davis — the outside receiver to the twins set at the bottom of the screen — ran a simple post route. Pittsburgh played bracket coverage, with Norwood working underneath from his safety position and Wallace capping him. The Steelers anticipated a shorter throw here — most likely a slant rather than a post — and Norwood’s angle was too flat. Wallace, meanwhile, didn’t get out of his backpedal fast enough, allowing Davis to win over the top. It was a good coverage call, and Wallace and Norwood were on the same page. They just didn’t execute well.

Then, after the bye, everything changed. The communication and execution errors largely disappeared, and when the Steelers played man-coverage, it often held up. Some of that had to do with the weaker slate of quarterbacks the Steelers faced. Brady, Allen and Hurts were replaced by Dalton, Huntley and Darnold. A healthy T.J. Watt made a huge difference too, as a better pass rush meant less time in coverage. In the 10 games Watt played, the Steelers averaged 3.2 sacks per game. In the seven games he missed, they averaged 1.1. The impact he had on the secondary was significant.

From a pure coverage perspective, though, the biggest boon was the addition of Kazee, who missed the first eight games with a broken arm. Kazee was on the field for an average of 55% of the team’s defensive snaps over the final nine games, as the Steelers increasingly deployed three-safety packages with him, Fitzpatrick and Edmunds. Kazee’s aptitude on the back end allowed them to get creative with Fitzpatrick and move him around the field more. The two games where Kazee played the largest percentage of snaps — Week 10 against New Orleans and Week 16 against Las Vegas — were two of Pittsburgh’s best defensive performances of the season. The Steelers held the Saints and Raiders to 300 combined passing yards, with one touchdown and five interceptions. Kazee played 100% and 89% of those snaps, respectively.

This pick in the New Orleans game demonstrated Kazee’s fantastic hand-eye coordination as he transitioned from looking to lay a hit to catching a tipped pass:

This one, from the season finale against Cleveland, showed off his ability to anticipate. Kazee, circled in the bottom left of the frame below, didn’t carry the clear-out from tight end David Njoku (85), instead jumping the underneath route. Plays like this justified his reputation as a ball-hawk.

As much as Kazee’s addition helped the secondary, the glue that held things together was Fitzpatrick. He was brilliant, earning 1st-Team All-Pro honors and recognition as the game’s best all-around safety. Beginning with an epic performance in the season-opener in which he recorded 14 tackles, a pick-six and a blocked extra point at the end of regulation that sent the game to overtime, Fitzpatrick never let up. He played at a high level each week. When the Steelers needed a big play, he made it.

This interception with 0:39 remaining and Pittsburgh protecting a three-point lead sealed a Week 13 victory in Atlanta:

This one locked up another last-minute win Week 17 in Baltimore:

The latter throw by Tyler Huntley was ill-advised and off-target. But it demonstrated Fitzpatrick’s uncanny tendency to be around the football, no matter where it was. Because of this, the Steelers increasingly used him at or near the line of scrimmage. His tackling was a pleasant surprise. Occasionally, he even brought the hammer, like on this hit that knocked Huntley out of the first game against Baltimore:

The Steelers played Edmunds down low a good deal as well, giving them two safeties they could use as box defenders. This made it harder on opposing offenses to anticipate run fits or coverage. The versatility of Fitzpatrick and Edmunds, coupled with the coverage ability of Kazee, gave Pittsburgh a dynamic safety trio.

Looking Ahead

Unfortunately, Edmunds and Kazee are unrestricted free agents, meaning both can hit the open market. Both are coming off of solid seasons and should command decent interest. With Fitzpatrick carrying an $18 million cap hit next season, retaining them could be tricky. Kazee was signed for just under $1.2 million, so if he’s willing to come back at a reasonable increase (1-year, $2 million?) it may be possible. Edmunds has a slightly higher number, at just over $2.5 million, and will likely attract bigger offers. While signing both would be fantastic, as it would allow the Steelers to retain their depth and flexibility, it may be too costly to invest that much money at the position.

If one, or even both, were to leave, Norwood did little to convince the Steelers he could fill their shoes. The 7th Round pick in 2021 is a converted cornerback who played much of the season like he was still learning the position. He seems best suited as a situational backup, playing in sub-packages. Should Pittsburgh lose Edmunds and/or Kazee, I’d expect them to look elsewhere for a replacement.

While I would hate to see Kazee go, my preference is for Pittsburgh to sign Edmunds, who is four years younger and whose durability and versatility allows the Steelers to play him on almost every snap. Edmunds could probably be had for somewhere in the 2-year, $7-8 million range. He has already teased that the Steelers should make both he and his brother, Tremaine, a standout linebacker for the Bills who is also a free agent, a package offer. Getting a deal done with Edmunds would be good business. Landing his brother would be a steal.

At corner, Sutton stepped up and became the player Pittsburgh needed. Opposing quarterbacks had a measly rating of 63 when targeting him, and his 15 pass break-ups ranked sixth in the league. But he’s another unrestricted free agent, and as Pittsburgh’s best all-around corner, should look to get paid like one. He could command $10 million per season, which would make him difficult to retain.

Wallace is back and is solid in the #2 role. Maulet returns on a cheap salary. So long as the Steelers minimize his use in man schemes, he’s a valuable player. Witherspoon is back, too, although his $5.5 million cap hit could make him expendable. Pierre is a restricted free agent. The continuity of returning those players is nice, but all have limitations.

With Sutton a candidate to leave, and no top-shelf talent elsewhere, it seems likely the Steelers will use a high draft pick on a corner. Pittsburgh owns three of the draft’s first 48 picks, and with that type of capital could land an impact player. If they prefer the free agency route, they should do their best to resign Sutton. Alternatives will be costly, and Sutton already knows the system.

The secondary was regarded as a weakness for the Steelers heading into 2022, but by season’s end was playing like perhaps their deepest position group. Free agency could take a toll this off-season, but with some strong negotiating and a wise use of draft picks, the unit could take another leap in 2023.