The draft has changed a lot for both the Steelers and the Bengals - in particular Pittsburgh's secondary and Cincinnati's receiver corps. Pittsburgh spent their top two picks on their secondary in CB Artie Burns, a player with resounding athletic ability and a high ceiling, and CB/S hybrid Sean Davis, with strikingly similar attributes to Burns (note- Pittsburgh will be playing him as a safety).
Cincinnati's second pick was on University of Pittsburgh WR Tyler Boyd, an intelligent and talented player, and their sixth pick was on Mississippi WR Cody Core - a converted defensive back with monumental speed. Cincinnati also picked up three undrafted free agents - Alex Erickson, Antwane Grant and Alonzo Russell, but being as these three are unlikely to make it off of the practice squad in the foreseeable future, they won't be looked at here. In my last article on this subject, I felt that this matchup weighed in the Bengals' favor - not because their receiving corps was so much better than Pittsburgh's secondary, but rather it had less holes as well as A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert.
How has the draft affected this matchup?
The Bengals' passing game has had two major new additions - both to wide receiver. For this reason, tight end won't be analyzed. To figure out how Cincinnati's passing game has changed, it's important to figure out who is going to see the most playing time. Three names you can be sure of - A.J. Green, Brandon LaFell, and Brandon Tate.
Beyond that, I can't be sure of anyone on the roster prior to the draft seeing the field with any frequency. Tyler Boyd, however, most certainly will. Cincinnati's head coach Marvin Jones is already confident he can play slot from day one, and his ability to to learn means that it won't take him long for to learn the offense. On top of intelligence, Boyd is fast too, something that all good receivers should be. He was pegged as one of, if not the, best WR in this year's draft, and made freshman All-American first team. He has plenty of raw talent, and can only get better. The Bengals have certainly filled a gaping hole left with the departures of Mohammed Sanu and Marvin Jones with him.
After Boyd, I'm not certain Cody Core will see the field much. It's a likelihood sure, but not set in stone. I see the Bengals taking two out of Core, Mario Alford or James Wright, then putting the third receiver on the practice squad along with their UFAs. However, if I was a betting man, my money would be on the third player not being Core. The reason for this is his room for development and speed. In OTAs, he has impressed coaches with his speed, and has been seen taunting Cincinnati's first round pick CB William Jackson III to try and catch him. So far, Jackson has been unable. That speaks wonders about his ability. Bearing in mind he's 6-foot 3-inches and 203 pounds, he is basically an undersized tight end. On paper it seems Cincinnati has fixed their flaws in the passing game.
Have the Steelers done the same win their secondary? I would say so. William Gay and Ross Cockrell will be the returning starters from last season, with Senquez Golson and Doran Grant having a year of experience, one way or another, after spending time in the league. With that said, adding Burns would bring their CB total to 5.
At safety, Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden are likely to start, with Shamarko Thomas being in rotation and Ross Ventrone being used primarily on special teams. Adding Sean Davis in for rotation will help him develop, as well as give him the chance to prove his worth. I'd say that cornerback and safety are two positions that still need work, but definitely have the ability to prove me wrong.
I will be the first to admit that my impression of Artie Burns may have been wrong. My article from a few weeks ago about Artie Burns' shortcomings shows my original confusion with the pick; but I've been persuaded. Burns has awesome potential. His big frame and speed alone show this - he might rely on this now, but given the training that most certainly can be given to him, this will change. Something still has me puzzled however - in college he played mostly zone coverage, does this mean that Pittsburgh's direction on defense is changing, or are the Steelers confident enough in his potential to be able to take the time to train him? Either way, it's going to be interesting, and a scheme change might be enough to throw opposing offenses off balance. This shows big things to come from Pittsburgh's defense, and this extends to the secondary.
Sean Davis, like Burns, is fast and strong. Something else I like about him - he loves to tackle. One shortcoming of Davis is how in college he played a lot at cornerback, as well as safety. This could go one of two ways, either this means he's not as polished and will need more time to understand the particulars of playing safety, or it could mean this could help him understand the playbook better, in so much that his cooperation with the cornerbacks and understanding what they are going to to could help him be in the right place at the right time. I feel confident in saying that Davis could show us some real talent in the coming season, and will really give Steelers fans something to enjoy watching.
Last time I wrote something on this, I said that I weighed this matchup in favour of the Bengals, mostly due to the talent of A.J. Green and the signing of LaFell, despite the significant losses of Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones. Now, I'd feel less confident to call it he same way, due to the strength of the Steelers' draft on the defensive side of the ball.
The real test is going to be seeing this players on the gridiron against the other, Bengals at the Steelers being something I look forward to every year. Something I can say is this: Yes, the Bengals have Green and Lafell, but this won't be enough to ensure their dominance of the now revitalized Steelers secondary. If I was forced to pick a favorite in this matchup, I'd most certainly have to call it a tie, due to the new Steelers players having to prove their worth, whereas the Bengals are a team whose only known receiving commodity is A.J. Green. Regardless, their two games are going to be something to pay attention to this season.