The addition of Brandon Boykin won't solve all of the Steelers problems when it comes to the secondary, but his presence on the field will certainly help matters. A former fourth-round draft pick out of the University of Georgia, Boykin brings an aggressive style of play and three seasons of NFL experience. Perhaps where he went wrong in terms of his relationship with the Eagles was expressing dissatisfaction with the amount of playing time he was seeing and expressing a desire to play outside, not just in the slot. With the Steelers, Boykin will likely see more playing time than he did with the Eagles and he could have a chance to play outside as well.
Let's take a look at the State of the Secondary up until the acquisition of Boykin and his potential impact on the team.
Room for Improvement after 2014
2014 marked the end of the careers of both legendary safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor. The players ages and most recent performance somewhat assuaged the sense of sadness and worry their retirements generated, but this offseason it was clear the unit was a source of genuine concern: the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary is a problem.
In 2014 the Steelers only had 21 takeaways, which landed them 23rd in the league. No single player had more than three interceptions.The Steelers horrendous pass defense was 23rd in the league in completion percentage allowed, 28th in yards per pass allowed, 28th in passing touchdowns allowed, and 28th in opponents' passer rating. Cortez Allen had a disappointing 2014 season along with William Gay's lackluster performance.
These terrible stats are not the fault of the secondary alone. A poor pass-rush consistently gave opposing quarterbacks ample time to read the defense, a liability that directly affected the secondary's performance.
Effort to Fill Gaps before Boykin
During this year's draft, a good portion of Steelers fans were freaking out, for lack of a more elegant phrase, over the Steelers decision to pick OLB Bud Dupree in the first round instead of a cornerback. While Dupree's pass-rushing prowess should ultimately help the secondary since quarter backs wont have all day to read the coverage, there was a palpable sense of urgency regarding the defensive backs.
Cornerback Senquez Golson was supposed to be the Savior of the Secondary, our second round pick out of Ole Miss who showed tremendous promise and potential, especially in terms of his ability to get to the ball and generate turnovers, an area of weakness for the Steelers in recent years.
Great hope was also placed in safety Gerod Holliman, the Steelers seventh-round pick from Louisville. Though he had astoundingly poor tackling skills, Holliman was considered to be a ball hawk, someone who could also be a big playmaker. Cornerback Doran Grant, though picked up in round four, has received much less coverage than some of the Steelers later-round selections, but nonetheless has the potential to help the team with his speed and football smarts.
Who else is on the roster? At CB we also have Cortez Allen, Antwon Black, Kevin Fogg, William Gay, new guy Jordan Sullen, and B.W. Webb. At safety beyond Holliman we have Will Allen, Alden Darby, Robert Golden, Isaiah Lewis, Mike Mitchell, Shamarko Thomas Ross Ventrone, and Ian Wild.
Injuries in the Secondary
The defense has been doing extra conditioning to help be in better shape and avoid injury, but so far, the secondary has not been very lucky in terms of health.
1) Senquez Golson is out with a shoulder injury and is considered day-to-day. When asked about his injury, Mike Tomlin replied with a characteristically terse "We'll see." The additions of Boykin and Sullen certainly suggest that Golson's injury is more severe than the Steelers have revealed.
2) Mike Mitchell, who suffered a groin injury last season, is out right now with a "minor injury." Although early, he remains out of workouts.
3) Gerod Holliman has a lower-leg injury. He had a shoulder injury at Louisville, so it appears he did not suffer a re-injury, but I'm not sure a new injury should be a source of relief.
4) Cortez Allen also has a "minor injury."
5) Ross Ventrone has an injury to his right leg that seems a little more than "minor" based on his use of a walking boot. He sustained the injury when WR Eli Rogers dove into his leg.
Cause for Concern?
Of all the units, the secondary is the most fragile. With Tomlin personally coaching up the secondary in the art of the Cover 2, it appears Tomlin is prioritizing that unit. Having four players out with injuries, no matter how minor, is a cause for concern about the unit's durability. How will it look during the regular season with intense, exhausting games week after week?
In the case of Holliman, one of his biggest deficiencies was tackling. He seemed to avoid it. While he may have been avoiding tackling because of a shoulder injury, he does not have much of a track record of hitting hard, dusting himself off, and doing it all over again. While he could end up completely healthy and contribute to the team, it is not a good sign that someone who isn't known for a physical style of game gets hurt (even if it is "minor") so soon after putting on pads.
Senquez Golson is perhaps the most disappointing injury. A second-round pick, he should have been an important part of the secondary over the next few years. Sure, he could recover from this injury and have a long career, but, again, definitely not a good sign that he is hurt with an injury described as "lingering" so early in his NFL career.
While none of these injuries are catastrophic, the secondary is the worst unit to be plagued with these nagging, minor, lingering injuries.
Enter Brandon Boykin
Able to play in the slot or outside, Boykin is a welcome and much-needed addition to the team. It would be hard for the Steelers pass defense to get worse, and with Boykin there is good chance it will get much, much better. On the other hand, the Steelers secondary is still facing an uphill battle. Boykin can only play one position, though, and there are still other areas of need among the d-backs.