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Analyzing how Sean Davis’ improvement represents a big reason why he’s the Steelers’ Rookie of the Year

Steelers safety Sean Davis is the team’s Rookie of the Year. And despite dramatic improvement since the beginning of the season, this might be just the beginning for the former University of Maryland Terrapin.

New York Giants v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

On Thursday, Steelers safety Sean Davis was named the team’s Rookie of the Year, earning him the Joe Greene Great Performance Award. Given the competition he had with cornerback Artie Burns and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, this year’s award is certainly a great honor.

Part of why he earned that award, I’m sure, is because of how well — and how quickly — he improved throughout the year.

He started the season out of position as the team’s slot cornerback, entering the game with nickel and dime personnel packages. By the third game, because of an injury to fellow safety Robert Golden, Davis found himself starting at a more natural position, though he was typically used more as a free safety than his college position of strong safety. Early in the season, and particularly in his first game as a starter, he was usually used as a deep safety. If a safety was playing close to the line in those early weeks, it was Mike Mitchell.

Not anymore. That’s because of the vast improvement Davis has shown in diagnosing plays, as well as knowing when to attack downhill and when to let the play come to him.

One area of particular improvement for the young safety is in diagnosing and attacking screens.

Week 3, 1st Quarter, 7:31 Remaining, 1st & 10

Early in this play, you can see Davis sense the screen to running back Darren Sproles coming, showing his instincts are working just fine. But he decides to drop back and wait for the blocking wall to form, which puts him at a distinct disadvantage as the only defender in the vicinity. The result is predictable, as he’s washed out of the play entirely. In fact, the angle he chooses is so bad that he has his back to Sproles as the scat-back scoots by.

The proper decision here would have been to get into the backfield as quickly as possible, between the blockers and Sproles. Had there been other defenders anywhere near the play, laying back may have been the right choice. But with no one else to absorb the blocking wall, he had to do something aggressive to get in position to make a play. Had he continued into the backfield instead of withdrawing, he could have been close enough to drop Sproles immediately.

Week 10, 4th Quarter, 5:56 Remaining, 1st & 10

Here, we can see him do a much better job with the screen. Yes, the situations are very different, as there is basically no wall of blockers in front of Dallas wide receiver Cole Beasley. But Davis recognizes the screen immediately, and begins moving downfield toward the receiver. One of the most subtle-yet-critical aspects of how he plays this is how he angles toward Beasley’s inside. This prevents the diminutive receiver from cutting back inside, allowing Davis to use the sideline as an additional defender. Davis never over-pursues, either, and uses his angle of attack to close the distance between himself and Beasley without getting out of proper position. If you were to create a textbook on how to play a wide-receiver screen, this play could be a candidate for the example.

When it comes to defending the run, Davis already was pretty good. I highlighted that in my reaction when he was drafted. But even his run-stopping skills have improved dramatically since the season started.

Week 3, 3rd Quarter, 2:31 Remaining, 2nd & 6

The biggest problem for Davis here is simply that it took him far too long to recognize the play. He’s been outstanding against the run when playing close to the line, but when he was being used almost exclusively as the deep safety, he struggled to see the hand-off and the line blocking, the two keys for defensive backs to go into run mode. Here, Davis is so slow in recognizing that he retreats a full three yards between the hand-off and the moment he changes direction. This run could have been four yards, rather than 14, had Davis seen the keys soon enough.

Now, contrast that to a similar situation against the Giants 10 weeks later.

Week 13, 1st Quarter, 3:49 Remaining, 2nd & 14

Here, Davis is a full 19 yards away from Giants running back Paul Perkins at the moment of the hand-off. He sees it, and immediately begins moving downhill. But if you look closely, you can see that he is moving quickly, but patiently, watching what is ahead of him the whole time rather than going into a full sprint. That keeps his feet underneath him, allowing him to adjust his angle as necessary. This lets him close the ground, along with Perkins’ cutback, putting him in position to make the tackle for no gain.

The best part? Davis is only going to get better. Sure, he absolutely earned his Rookie of the Year honors, and should even be in the discussion for the league-wide Defensive Rookie of the Year. But he may have the highest ceiling of all the team’s 2016 rookies. His athleticism, combined with his excellent instincts, mean the Steelers may have a future franchise player on their hands — not to mention what may have been the biggest steal of the 2016 NFL Draft’s second round.