Everyone knows the statistic which hovers over the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary like a dark, ominous cloud.
30th in the league in pass defense, giving up 271 yards per game.
The Steelers secondary resembled Swiss cheese more than it did a quality unit in 2015, but the group looks to improve on their dismal NFL ranking in the upcoming 2016 season.
A lot has changed since last year. Gone are Brandon Boykin, Antwon Blake and Will Allen. Inserted in their places are Ross Cockrell, Robert Golden, Sean Davis, Artie Burns and newly acquired Justin Gilbert. William Gay is the mainstay on the team, and after signing a new 3-year contract prior to the start of the 2016 season he will have some new faces in the defensive secondary with him when the team faces the Washington Redskins in Week 1.
Speaking of new faces, with the injury to second year cornerback Senquez Golson, it has put rookie Sean Davis into the slot in the nickel package when teams deploy specific offensive packages. After practicing all preseason with the starters as the slot cornerback, most would assume he would be on the field on Monday night, but defensive coordinator Keith Butler wasn't ready to say that when speaking with reporters Thursday after practice.
"It could be anybody." When Butler was asked who would be the team's nickel cornerback in Week 1. "I'd rather not say right now, to be honest. We're looking at a couple of guys. It could be Sean (Davis). It could be "Deucey" (William Gay). We'll see when we get to the game how things pan out and the third down situation for us. For us it is going to be situational football, and we need to win third downs."
So, could the Steelers actually deploy a defensive secondary in specific situations we haven't seen yet this preseason? It is possible, after all, they have the personnel to do it.
The Steelers have been extremely impressed with Justin Gilbert's play since being acquired less than a week ago, and rookie Artie Burns has received praise from Butler, in terms of his progression. If the team were to move Gay to the slot, his more natural, and best, position, they would have to rely on either Gilbert or Burns to play outside.
On paper this seems fine, but in the same media scrum Butler talked about the importance of playing alongside one another in practice, and having the communication aspect of the game down to a 'T' before the first game. Everyone remembers the communication breakdown which was the season opener against the New England Patriots last year. With that said, would the team consider a move like this, or is this Butler just keeping his cards close to the vest?
Most would probably assume it is the latter of the two possibilities, but if this shows anything it is the fact the Steelers are not against mixing up the secondary as the season progresses and players like Gilbert and Burns get acclimated to the Steelers system.
The team's secondary certainly is work-in-progress, but if a few of these players pan out, and Golson is able to return, and be effective, in 2016, this secondary could turn into another strength of the team's defense before long.