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Will the real Steelers secondary please stand up?

The Steelers secondary has been incredibly inconsistent, and so has the media coverage the unit has generated.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Just when the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary seems to show signs of improvement, they hit the field after their bye week and put up one of their worst performances all season. The inconsistency of the Steelers secondary has been maddening, as have their personnel choices.

Is the Steelers secondary really horrible, or did they just have an off week? Let's take a quick look back at the vicissitudes of the Steelers defensive backs and the coverage they have received in the media.

Before the Regular Season: Despair then Hope

Before the regular season, the secondary was predicted to be the Achilles heel of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. When second-round draft pick Senquez Golson was too injured to start the season and several promising options, including Kevin Fogg and Doran Grant, cut from the team, fans and media sources alike were pessimistic.

In August, the Steelers had signed Brandon Boykin, an acquisition from the Philadelphia Eagles who had the second most interceptions in the entire league during the 2013 season. His presence on the team assuaged some of the worry surrounding the unit and provided a glimmer of hope. Jared Dubin of CBS wrote, "Steelers getting some serious slot skills." He added that Boykin has "emerged as one of the NFL's best cornerbacks over the last two seasons."  Kevin Patra of NFL.com predicted back in August, "Boykin will step in immediately and start in a secondary with many questions."

Spoiler alert: Boykin has seen virtually no playing time so far this season.

Steelers vs. Patriots: The Secondary Sucks

After the first game of the regular season, the secondary confirmed everyone's worst fears. They sucked. NFL.com's Chris Wesseling wrote, "After watching Pittsburgh's defense blow coverages throughout the game, it's fair to wonder if Patriot's backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo would have torched their patchwork secondary as well."

Wessling's assessment was actually fairly kind. Throughout the game, the defensive backs would try to communicate with one another to coordinate, but every signal was met with that "What? Me? Are you talking to me, or is there someone behind me? Whoa, is Gronk sitting out this play?" look.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers backup quarterback Charlie Batch had some hilarious, yet sadly true, commentary on the secondary going into the second regular season game against the 49ers. On Sirius radio, he pointed out that the secondary really needed to get on the same page. Pretty much any page. Just something coordinated.

Spoiler alert: They get better, then they start playing worse than ever.

Weeks 2 through 10: Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

The improvement of the secondary wasn't linear, but the unit definitely appeared more coordinated, aggressive, and competent as the season progressed. There were some personnel changes as rookie Doran Grant was eventually signed from the practice squad. Other decisions remained consistent; Boykin sat on the bench game after game.

Antwon Blake

Antwon Blake received positive coverage in the media after Week 2 with Gary Dulac writing, "Mike Mitchell delivered several big hits, and so did CB Antwon Blake." Other weeks, he was criticized for sub-par play. After the Raiders game, PennLive gave him a C-, complaining, "His men had a five-yard cushion around them all too often in the open field." His tackling, the very skill he struggled with in Week 12, was said to have "remained impressive" to that point in the season.

Which is it? Is Blake a failure or an impressive tackler who is occasionally out of position? Opinions of Blake are all over the map, but then again, so is his level of play on the field.

Excuses

There was enough hope that the secondary was improving that there was room for speculation about the rough start. Perhaps it was adjustment to Cover 2. Perhaps Keith Butler and Carnell Lake had a few minor (and major) details to work out. Maybe it was just a mish-mash of players who needed to become more comfortable with each other. In fact, at the end of October, cornerback Ross Cocrkell seemed to suggest the unit had taken a while to gel. It seemed plausible. "Everybody just came from all over the place," he said via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "It just seems like that."

(Read more on the evolution of the Cover 2, here)

Progress then Regression

In Week 6, which yielded a victory against the Arizona Cardinals, TribLive gave the secondary an A, praising Antwon Blake's 12 tackles and Robert Golden's strong performance. BTSC gave the defensive backs a C+ that week due to their failure to contain Josh Brown who had 10 receptions for 200 yards in a game that saw the Cardinals rack up 421 yards through the air. The Post-Gazette split the difference and gave the unit a B, recalling Mike Mitchell's big end zone interception and fumble recovery.

The next week against the Chiefs, the secondary struggled tremendously, earning a low grade of C- from Bleacher Report and a C from the Post-Gazette where Dulac observed, "Blake was late covering Conley on his 6-yard touchdown. It was the first game this season in which the Steelers did not have a takeaway." BTSC was annoyed with the tackling comparing the level of contact and aggression to "playground tag, TSA patdowns, baton exchange on a relay race." Though tackling would improve for some games, it continues to be a source of extreme frustration.

Some individual players began to generate consistently positive buzz. On November 9, Colin Dunlap of CBS wrote, "I was wrong about Mike Mitchell."  Andrea Hangst of Bleacher Report also noticed Mike Mitchell was stepping up, writing, "He's helped bring back some of the Pittsburgh defense's signature swagger."

Swagger

Was the swagger really back? After Week 10, there were still concerns, but overall it seemed the secondary and the rest of the defense had turned the corner.

After the victory over the Browns in Week 10, the Post-Gazette gave the Secondary a respectable B, as Gerry Dulac noted, "After a 61-yard catch-and-run on the second series that set up a field goal, the Steelers did not allow a reception longer than 21 yards. Mike Mitchell came up with another big end-zone interception when it was 24-3. And Will Allen had a team high 11 tackles and a forced fumble."

TribLive also gave the Secondary a B, writing, "Safeties Mike Mitchell and Will Allen (game-high 11 tackles) delivered hard hits in the run and pass game. Allen jammed the line and made Manziel uncomfortable in the pocket."  (It is important to note that Manziel was comfortable enough that week to throw for 372 yards, a definite indictment of both the pass rush and the secondary).

Then Week 12 happened.

Spoiler alert: They disappoint absolutely everyone in Week 12.

Week 12: Back to Square One?

The Steelers have managed to find themselves ranked 30th in the league at 283.6 passing yards. While part of this is the fault of the front seven, the secondary was porous and ineffectual against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 12. Even Ross Cockrell, who had seemed competent throughout most of the season, struggled tremendously in Week 12.

Antwon Blake, who has come up with some big, momentum-changing plays during the season-- for better and for worse-- couldn't tackle. That could be a literal "couldn't" due to injury, complete regression in basic football skills, or a combination of the two. He literally wasn't tackling, instead throwing himself awkwardly into players or making feeble attempts at arm tackles. Based on his Week 12 performance, it is laughable that anyone would describe him as a strong tackler, although that has been the nature of the entire secondary throughout the season: Unpredictable. And not in a crafty, "Wow, what a clever, scheme sort of way."

Grades for the secondary in Week 12 were low, and they were universally blasted for poor coverage and shoddy tackling. TribLive.com gave the unit a D, writing "Too many open receivers, too much separation gotten by those receivers, too many missed tackles, too many big plays, too many third-down completions for Seattle." The Post-Gazette was less generous, giving the secondary an F. Dulac criticized specific players, including Antwon Blake of whom he wrote, "Blake missed a tackle on the play, something he had done all game."

Takeaways

The secondary was horrible in Week 12. Does this mean the secondary is terrible and will be terrible forever more? No. After an exceptionally horrendous Week 1, the unit managed to improve enough to receive praise from a variety of outlets and, more importantly, contribute to several Steelers victories.

At this point, the vicissitudes of the secondary could also be a function of coaching. Can position coach Carnell Lake help the unit perform more consistently and reliably? While Lake is clearly no Mike Munchak, are the woes of the secondary entirely his fault? Are there other personnel combinations that would yield better results (cough, Brandon Boykin, cough, cough)? These are factors that go beyond individual players or the cohesion of the unit, and they are factors the coaching staff and management will have to consider as the Steelers go into the last quarter of the season.

Which Steelers secondary will show up against the Indianapolis Colts? Descriptions and analysis of the unit, and even individual players, have varied wildly throughout the season. If the unit can regroup and bounce back as they did after the games against the Patriots and Chiefs, the Steelers have a shot at the playoffs. If not, the secondary could be one of the main factors in an unsuccessful season, negating all of their decent performances earlier in the season.

Let's hope that's not the case.