One of the biggest concerns coming out of the Steelers’ second preseason game was the declining play of cornerback Ross Cockrell, who had started all 16 weeks last year.
Throwing his hat into the ring Saturday night to perhaps snatch the starting job from Cockrell was cornerback Coty Sensabaugh, a journeyman signed by the Steelers in the offseason.
After turning in a decent performance against Indianapolis, Sensabaugh might actually have the edge in what undoubtedly is a two-man competition.
"We talked about it prior to the game, that we were going to look at both guys," said Tomlin courtesy of PennLive. "Coty was deserving [of more playing time], so we followed through with what we promised."
Tomlin continued: "We'll evaluate it, maybe even going into next week we'll continue to look, see what those guys do as we continue to push toward the opener."
I don't know about you, but the idea of one of the two cornerback spots still being up for grabs—with only the utterly meaningless preseason finale against the Panthers remaining before the start of the regular season—is rather unsettling.
And it's not strictly because one starting job on a young defense is still undetermined, but because of who’s involved in the competition.
We're talking about a guy signed in the offseason for depth purposes—again, a journeyman now with his fourth organization since entering the league in 2012—possibly jumping up and earning a starting role on a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.
So essentially, you have a guy with a questionable resume trying to take the job of another guy with a questionable resume. And no matter who wins out, the guy playing the slot likely will be 32-year old Willie Gay.
Maybe that's why I was so encouraged to see Cameron Sutton make his professional football debut against the Colts Saturday night—and looking good doing it.
After missing most of training camp and the first two preseason games while nursing a hamstring injury, I was beginning to wonder if any recently-drafted cornerback not named Artie Burns would ever see any action and perhaps offer some hope and evidence that he could be an upgrade to what the Steelers already have at the position (aside from Burns, of course).
Because let's face it, this is what needs to happen if the Steelers’ secondary is to develop from a liability into a strength.
Sure, Cockrell is a nice story and a player Tomlin admired coming out of college, which was probably why he was quickly signed after the Bills released him two years ago. But he’s young enough and he was drafted high enough (fourth round) that you'd like to see continued improvement from year-to-year rather than an apparent regression. That this regression comes at a time when Burns is quickly emerging as the team's top cornerback makes one wonder if the opposition has correctly realized the weak-link in the secondary and will continue to exploit Cockrell as long he's on the other side of the field.
As for Gay, his resume is one to be proud of, but his age is one to be concerned about.
When it comes to Sensabaugh, one wonders why the Rams cut him in the middle of the 2016 campaign, just months after signing him to a fairly substantial three-year, $15 million deal in free agency.
Again, that's quite a lot of uncertainty in the secondary of a team heavily favored to compete for the next Lombardi trophy.
Back to Sutton, who admittedly didn't play a ton on Saturday but was credited with a pass-defensed on third down, in addition to recording three tackles, including one for a loss.
It would be foolish to expect Sutton to crack the starting lineup by Week 1. But, given Pittsburgh's early-season schedule that includes matchups against the Browns, Vikings, Bears and Jaguars, it wouldn't be unusual for him to see a lot of snaps on the outside and in the slot during the first half of 2017.
If Sutton proves capable of handling the load, and if the coaches are confident in his abilities, perhaps they’ll name him the starter sooner rather than later.
Maybe by then, someone such as camp sensation Mike Hilton, who ideally also will see a lot of early-season playing-time, might jump up and grab the slot role from Gay.
A secondary in which Cockrell, Gay and Sensabaugh are depth players in December— thanks to talented youngsters blowing past them in October and November—should theoretically make for a stronger secondary in January when the Steelers are looking to realize those Super Bowl aspirations.