Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had an interesting theory this week. Perhaps the Steelers have a blindspot when it comes to the secondary. The article contained a telling quote from Art Rooney, who said in January, "We've made some mistakes, there's no denying that in terms of some of the evaluations."
It is hard to test Fittipaldo's theory since they aren't habitual Defensive Back Drafters. Still, a look at their defensive back draft picks from the past few years does seem to indicate that they have trouble finding NFL-level talent via the draft to bolster their secondary.
Here are their defensive back picks since 2006:
2006: Anthony Smith, Round 3
2007: William Gay, Round 5
2008: Ryan Mundy, Round 6
2009: Keenan Lewis, Round 3; Joe Burnett, Round 5
2010: Crezdon Butler, Rounds 5
2011: Curtis Brown, Round 3; Cortez Allen, Round 4
2013: Terry Hawthorne, Round 5; Shamarko Thomas, Round 4
2014: Shaquille Richardson, Round 5
2015: Senquez Golson, Round 2; Doran Grant, Round 4; Gerod Holliman, Round 7
With few exceptions, the Steelers defensive back picks during these years were disappointing. Keep in mind that the Seattle Seahawks picked up Kam Chancellor in the fifth round of the 2010 draft and Richard Sherman in Round 5 of the 2011 draft, so there was talent to be found in later rounds. In 2012, the Carolina Panthers found Josh Norman in the fifth round. The talent was there; the Steelers just couldn't identify it.
A few patterns emerge from the last nine drafts. First, the Steelers have not used top picks to target cornerbacks with the exception of Senquez Golson in Round 2 last year. He, unfortunately, was too injured to play in 2015, so his worth remains unproven. Second, very few defensive backs have turned into strong contributors.
While one problem could be the inability to spot promising talent, there are other factors in play. The Steelers defensive back coaches have not been as strong as the coaches of other position groups. Wide receivers coach Richard Mann is a wide-receiver-super-star-production-machine, while running backs coach James Saxon has developed Le'Veon Bell into an NFL powerhouse and DeAngelo Williams into a phenmoneal backup.
Who have the Steelers employed as the defensive backs coach the last few years? Since 2011, Carnell Lake has been in charge of the secondary. He played 12 excellent seasons in the NFL, including time with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1989 to 1998.
Lake replaced Ray Horton, the new defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns who spent a pair of seasons in the same position with the Tennessee Titans and Arizona Cardinals. This season will be his second stint with the Browns; he was also defensive coordinator for the team in 2013. Horton spent seven seasons with the Steelers, helping the team win two Super Bowl championships. While he has not met with the same success as a defensive coordinator, his talent as a defensive backs coach seems to surpass that of Lake.
Hence, the problem could be just as much a deficiency in player development as it is one of scouting and identifying promising players. After all, plenty of teams draft and develop ball hawks from late rounds. And, the Steelers have had an excellent track record of finding strong wide receivers and offensive linemen in late rounds or via undrafted free agents.
Wide receiver Martavis Bryant was a fourth-round pick in 2014; WR Markus Wheaton a third-round pick in 2013; and, of course, Antonio Brown was a sixth-round pick in 2010. Emmanuel Sanders was picked up that same year in Round 3. Mike Wallace, a strong performer until he left the Steelers, was a third-round pick in 2009. With the exception of Limas Sweed in 2009, the Steelers have not had much trouble finding and developing game-changing wide receivers.
Meanwhile, the team either avoids investing top draft picks in defensive backs, or picks players whose NFL contributions are minimal, or nonexistent. The Steelers definitely have a problem when it comes to drafting defensive backs, but that deficiency is only part of the puzzle. The team also needs to find a way to develop talent and come up with schemes suitable to the skill sets of the players they do have on the team. Even fundamentals skills-- like tackling-- have been atrocious on the defensive side of the ball, particularly in the secondary. (Seriously, since when has shoulder-bumping an NFL wide receiver been effective? And, what coach ever said, "Use your fingers to bring down that player!")
The Steelers do need to take a look at their blindspot, as Fittipaldo suggests, but they also need to take a hard look at the system in place to develop college talent into menaces on the NFL field.