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The 2016 Steelers secondary, and overall defense, have already improved

Put aside the rose-colored glasses. And the doom-and-gloom gray ones. The future of Pittsburgh's defense, including the much-abused corners, looks very good indeed.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

There has been a lot of commentary on BTSC about the sad state of the Steelers' defensive backfield in 2015, and the worries looking forward to 2016. This is going to morph into an article that sees things improving, by a lot, but I want to be clear up front that the 'Negative Nellies' have some very real points. The rear view mirror holds a lot of problems, including the Steelers genuine ranking as one of the very worst pass defenses.

I'm not arguing for the application of rose-colored glasses about what we've seen so far. The pass defense gave up way too many yards, way too many times. Firming up in the red zone was a saving grace, but it doesn't erase the rest of the picture. The 2015 team would have been much better if it could have prevented some of that yardage. Opponents would have had to punt more often, giving the Pittsburgh offense more opportunities to score. Opponents would have lost a great deal of clock time, leaving the defense fresher and more able to attack at the end of games. Opponents would have scored fewer field goals, which really do add up. And opponents would have been forced to try heavier formations, which would feed into the strength of a defense that could have used Steve McLendon's talents to a fuller extent.

There is no doubt - none, zip, zero, nada - that a better defense would have helped the team immeasurably, and that the weakest part of the 2015 unit was the defensive backfield.

But as they say in all those ads, "Prior Results Do Not Dictate Future Performance." There are many reasons to believe that the 2016 Steeler pass defense will be stronger than the 2015 group even if the team makes nary a change at all. Glasses that turn the world gray are just as misleading as those that make it too rosy. So let's try to look at things without a bias in either way. I believe you'll agree that the arrow is pointing steadily up.

Reason #1 to believe the 2016 group will be stronger than 2015. INJURIES.

I can hear the cries already: "Injuries are not an excuse!" Yeah, yeah, but they are an explanation in a great many cases. Just ask last year's Baltimore Ravens.

The 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers went into the season expecting to have these five (5) Cornerbacks on the roster, arrayed in the following priority:

  1. William Gay
  2. Cortez Allen
  3. Senquez Golson
  4. Antwon Blake
  5. Doran Grant

Since two of those five were rookies, and everyone knew up front that Doran Grant would need a year of seasoning before he could really contribute, we all understood that this lineup was perilously thin. Many hopes were placed on Cortez Allen's ability to have a comeback year, and Senquez Golson's relatively advanced skill set. "He might be small, but he's as pro-ready as they come..."

Then Golson got hurt in spring training. This was a real blow, but the team came through by trading for Brandon Boykin:

  1. William Gay
  2. Cortez Allen
  3. Senquez Golson (Brandon Boykin)
  4. Antwon Blake
  5. Doran Grant

We expected Boykin to claim that same #3 spot on the depth chart that Golson was penciled into at the beginning of the year. Alas, but he couldn't do it. Why? We who watch no practices, analyze no film, read no medical reports, and see none of the locker room interactions have asked that question ad nauseum. I have no intent of going there in depth because the past is past. But let's be real for a moment. Whose judgment do you really trust? The professional football experts who have that information, or the football fans who don't? I'll side with the coaches. Your mileage may vary. But enough of that. Let's return to the injury problems.

Cortez Allen joined Golson on the I.R right before the season got going. The front office came through once again, this time by snagging one of my favorite 2014 value-prospects in Ross Cockrell. If Boykin was a disappointment, Cockrell was the opposite. He quickly outplayed the former Eagle to claim the #3 spot. That left the re-revised depth chart looking like this:

  1. William Gay
  2. Antwon Blake
  3. Cortez Allen (Ross Cockrell)
  4. Senquez Golson (Brandon Boykin)
  5. Doran Grant

Cockrell's 2014 draft report amounted to a slightly-higher ranked equivalent to Doran Grant: He had the potential to grow into a true #1, was ranked as a 3rd-Rounder because of technical holes that would require a redshirt year, and ultimately got picked in the 4th. Cockrell's redshirt year came as a member of the Bills, and they were trying to sneak him onto their practice squad when Pittsburgh snatched him up. A great bargain from our point of view, but a risky one nevertheless. Cockrell in his second year had about the same level of question marks that Senquez Golson would have had as a rookie. Had he grown enough in that redshirt year to contribute in 2015? Or would he require a second year of seasoning on already thin Pittsburgh squad? The answer proved to be something in between. Cockrell played like a really promising rookie. Opponents didn't go out of their way to avoid him, but neither did they treat him as the primary target of opportunity. Whew!

But the bottom line is that injuries cost Pittsburgh both the #2 and the #3 Corners on its preseason depth chart. That is a VERY big deal! Would the World Champion Broncos have that title if you removed both Chris Harris and Bradley Roby from the depth chart before the season even began? That is what happened to the Steelers.

Oh yes. Then there's the fact that Antwon Blake played hurt for at least half the season. In the beginning of the year we were all thrilled at his aggressive run support and ability to tackle the catch. Then we suddenly weren't.... "Injuries are not an excuse!" Yeah, yeah, but they are an explanation. It essentially changed to depth chart to look like this:

  1. William Gay
  2. EMPTY
  3. Injured Antwon Blake
  4. Cortez Allen (Ross Cockrell)
  5. Senquez Golson (Brandon Boykin)
  6. Doran Grant

If you want an explanation for why the pass defense suffered so much in 2015, there it is.

Reason #2 to believe the 2016 group will be stronger than 2015. YOUTH.

This one is quicker. Senquez Golson was drafted to compete with William Gay and Cortez Allen as the #1 Corner. Everyone knew he couldn't do that as a rookie. That's why we penciled him in as the #3 to start the year. I have no doubt that playing in 2015 would have helped Golson to develop faster, but I also have no doubt that he will be better in 2016 than he would have been in 2015. Maybe he won't compete to be the #1, but he for-sure deserves to be the #2.

As noted above, Ross Cockrell and Doran Grant were mid-round picks. There is a traditional learning curve for that kind of prospect:

  • Year 1: Either begin to learn the trade, or bust out completely. Call it 60/40.
  • Year 2: Begin to contribute as a useful chess piece, or bust out completely. Call it 80/20 if you survived year 1.
  • Year 3: Begin to mature into the player you're going to be for most of your career. I.e., be a decent #2 or solid #3 if you're going to mature into a #1. Or be a better chess piece if you're going to mature into a journeyman.
  • Year 4: Be the mature version of yourself for the first time, with room to subtly improve as your skills become more automatic. You should also be taking advantage of your experience in the defense you should have (almost) mastered.
  • Year 5: Same as Year 4, but more so. [Yes, Willie Gay and James Harrison took even longer than this to mature but that is a knock against them from the career point of view].

Ross Cockrell came to us in Year 2 of his career arc, and more than lived up to the "useful chess piece" standard. His 2015 performance gives us every reason to believe he will compete to be a #2 or #3 Corner in Year 3, especially since his development had to suffer a bit because of the switch in defenses.

Doran Grant survived the ever-present danger of instant busthood inherent in every Round 4 pick. The odds now favor his growing into a useful NFL pro. He may only be a useful chess piece in 2016, but that's a heck of a lot more than he did as a rookie.

That is three fifths of the squad - a full 60% - who will be better in 2016 than they were in 2015 due to the simple process of player maturation. The depth chart going into 2016 looks like this:

  1. William Gay
  2. Senquez Golson (a competitor for #2 instead of a #3)
  3. Ross Cockrell (a competitor for #2 instead of a chess piece)
  4. Doran Grant (a useful chess piece instead of a benchwarmer)
  5. Cortez Allen (risk-laden, but still with a potential boom)

Reason #3 to believe the 2016 group will be stronger than 2015. IMPROVEMENTS TO OTHER PARTS OF THE DEFENSE

It wasn't just the Corners that suffered from youth in the 2015 defense. We have every right to expect better performances from each of these players too:

  • Bud Dupree as he enters Year 2
  • Stephon Tuitt as he enters Year 3
  • Ryan Shazier as he enters Year 3
  • Slow-but-steady maturer Jarvis Jones as he enters Year 4
  • Robert Golden as he matures as a starter

We can also hope for improvements from several prospects who were picked in later rounds because they had a further way to go:

  • Anthony Chickillo as he enters Year 2
  • LT Walton as he enters Year 2
  • Dan McCullers as he enters Year 3
  • Whatever surprises are lurking on the practice squad

Yes, there are some corresponding losses. Steve McLendon's departure will hurt, as will the further aging of Deebo and the departure/aging of Will Allen. But I think everyone will agree that the improvements should outweigh the losses by a very significant amount.

A rising tide lifts all boats. The growth of those young players in other parts of the defense will make the secondary better in exactly the same way.

Reason #4 to believe the 2016 group will be stronger than 2015. A YEAR IN THE SYSTEM.

Coach Butler did an amazing job in 2016 after taking over from the legendary Coach LeBeau. We expected to see evolution rather than revolution, and that's what we got. But the simple fact is that players suffer from any change at the top, and improve as they become more familiar with what the coordinator is trying to do.

The players from last year's squad - which is pretty much everybody - are going to perform better in 2016 than they did in 2015 simply because it will be their second year under Coach Butler. Again, improvement would be inevitable even if the team did nothing at all in the draft.

"But Wait, There's More!" [Too much time at the TV, clearly. Sigh]. What I mean to say is that Coach Butler had to sacrifice certain parts of his ideal defense in 2015 to accommodate the weaknesses listed above: overall youth, injuries to his #2 and #3 corners, growing pains for his replacement #3 and #5 corners, etc. Just as an army general has to plan his battle to shield the less seasoned and weaker units, so Coach Butler had to plan his games around minimizing the damage from his green and injured players. Thus we have every reason to expect a rising tide from experience in the system in addition to the benefits from improved health and player maturity.

Reason #5 to believe the 2016 group will be stronger than 2015. IMPROVED OFFENSE.

The offense was devastated by injuries in 2015 and still performed to an all but obscene standard. Add the best Center in the NFL to that unit and the potential is sickening. Add the best RB in the NFL to that unit and it could be the GOAT. The Steelers plan to do both. I can't imagine the nightmares that's already giving to opposing defensive coordinators.

Add to that the almost complete return of all the weapons we relied on in 2015. There are essentially no losses because (a) Beachum was a nonfactor due to his injury, and (b) the twin losses of Martavis Bryant and Heath Miller are offset by the additions of Ladarius Green, the maturing of Jesse James, and the expected arrival of Sammie Coates.

Better offense makes it easier to play defense. Hard as it is to believe, the Steeler offense will be better in 2016 than it was in 2015, barring injury.

Reason #6 to believe the 2016 group will be stronger than 2015. ROOKIES.

Nah, not really. I treat rookie contributions as pure bonus points. Even the addition of an Andrew Billings would probably result in a net loss at the Nose Tackle position for most of 2016 compared to what Steve McLendon would have done.

Of course, I am an eternal pessimist when it comes to rookie contributions. I acknowledge that most of you disagree with me and hope for at least a few moments when the rookies will be actual assets instead of just future investments. It doesn't really matter either way for purposes of this article. The Steeler secondary - and the overall defense - will be better in 2016 than they were in 2015 even if the rookies do nothing at all.


So am I saying that the Steelers would reap no benefit from adding an elite young talent at the Corner or Safety position? Absolutely not. At the very least the team needs to plan ahead for the day when Father Time catches up to Willie Gay. In addition, teams that replace good players with great ones are always that much better.

I have argued that both Ross Cockrell and (probably) Doran Grant are going to be "good"; i.e., long-term #2 or #3 Corners. If the team can grab a real #1, from 2017 on the team will be better than it would have been without that pick. Same thing for an improvement at Safety over the able-but-not special Robert Golden, and for various particular roles in the sub packages.

Then there's the argument that my improved forecast for the Pittsburgh backfield has ignored a number of risks. What if Senquez Golson does not mature, or only matures into a #2 or a #3? What if Cockrell or Grant backslide? What if Cortez Allen continues his descent? Wouldn't adding some likely prospects provide good insurance against those risks? Absolutely. In fact, it might even help to allay them by adding extra competition. Iron sharpens iron.

Thus I am and always have been in favor of adding some good talent at both the Safety and the Corner positions in this year's draft. But that is not because there are major holes that need to be filled. Injuries aside (especially to Heyward or Tuitt, god forbid), Pittsburgh ought to have a very good defense in 2016 because of the moves made over the past three years. That momentum should also continue into 2017 at least, when we might start to see actual greatness again. I want to see defensive rookies to reinforce what's already underway.

The Steeler arrow is pointed up my friends. Way up. And at an especially steep angle for the defense. It is the fan's inalienable right to gripe and moan about clouds on the horizon, both real and imagined. But keep some perspective. It's a tremendous time to be a fan of...

Your ... Pittsburgh ... STEELERS!