The Pittsburgh Steelers would rather not have to shake up their roster, but injuries can certainly play a role in the decision making process. After the team's Week 3 loss, there were several injuries on the defensive side of the ball which will open the door for other players to finally see significant snaps on the football field.
As head coach Mike Tomlin always says, "One man's misfortune is another man's opportunity."
Such is life in the NFL, and with Ryan Shazier (knee), Robert Golden (hamstring), and Sean Davis (back) all very big question marks heading into Week 4, the defense could have a different look to it when the Kansas City Chiefs invade Heinz Field Sunday.
With Golden likely out of the mix, the logical move would be to place Sean Davis there to help keep the back end of the defense stable. However, if you read the previous paragraph, Davis' availability Sunday is anything but certain. So, what is the team going to do in this situation? It leaves only two real options: Jordan Dangerfield or Shamarko Thomas.
If Wednesday's practice is any indicator, it is Dangerfield who would get the starting nod on Sunday if Davis and/or Golden were unable to play.
Jordan Dangerfield confirmed he's the next man up for the Steelers at strong safety with Golden and Davis out.— James C Wexell (@jimwexell) September 28, 2016
Let's leave the fact Thomas has been given a chance for the starting position every year since Troy Polamalu retired, and failed to seize the opportunity, and focus on Dangerfield. Dangerfield, a Towson University product who has spent part of the past few seasons with the Steelers, is a hard-hitting safety with questionable coverage skills, but against an offense like the Kansas City Chiefs, them stretching the field is not as big of a concern as it would be if they were playing any number of teams who like to air the ball out down the field.
Dangerfield isn't the only player who could reap the benefits of an injury to someone ahead of them on the depth chart. In fact, Davis' absence could cause the Steelers to be very creative when it comes to the team's defensive secondary alignment. Davis, who wasn't just serving as the primary backup at safety, was the team's starting slot cornerback. Without him in the lineup, someone will have to fill that role, and recently acquired cornerback Justin Gilbert talked Wedensday about him finally getting to see the field for the first time in the black and gold.
Justin Gilbert: "Coach said I've been working my tail off so they're rewarding me with this & gonna let me get some playing time (Sunday)."— Missi Matthews (@missi_matthews) September 28, 2016
The former first round draft pick did add his usage will primarily be in sub packages, but how the team plans to deploy their defensive backs will be interesting to watch. In recent weeks they have taken William Gay and moved him to the slot, putting rookie Artie Burns on the field opposite Ross Cockrell on the outside. Justin Gilbert could see the field if they decide to go to the dime defensive package, or if they decide to have him split time with Burns in the nickel.
Joining both Dangerfield and Gilbert could be inside linebacker L.J. Fort. Fort, who has been a part of 5 different NFL franchises since being drafted, will likely get the start for Ryan Shazier if he is unable to play with a sprained MCL in his knee. Fort has shown promise at times in relief of Shazier, but it will be telling to see what he can do with a full week of preparation with the starters, and a full 60-minutes to prove himself on the field.
The Steelers' mantra is "next man up" for a reason. When injuries occur, when players are lost, the next player in line needs to not just occupy a position, but to make plays. The 2014 and 2015 Steelers were able to do just that, and it defined their season. The 2016 Steelers have fallen on some tough times, from an injury standpoint, and it will be on these fresh faces to step up and make plays in a winning effort. For some, the wait has been long and arduous, and their time to shine is just days away.