If you had to boil down the Steelers’ defensive struggles in 2016 to one word, most of us would answer, “rookies.” And it’s mostly true. It’s equally true, however, that if we had to give a single-word answer for what has changed in the last three games that has made the defense so much better, the answer would also be “rookies”.
One of those rookies, safety Sean Davis, has had a wild ride this year, from being thrust into the lineup as a sometimes-safety-sometimes-cornerback, to being mostly benched, to being named the full-time starter at strong safety. He’s come through with surprising aplomb.
Davis’ struggles early were mostly with route recognition and open-field tackling. In the last three weeks, both of those issues have gone the way of the dodo, and it’s no surprise that the defense has looked better as a whole because of it. It’s not just in the passing game where it’s apparent, either; in fact, it may be mostly apparent in run support.
1st Quarter, 3:49 Remaining, 2nd & 15
Recognition, vision and speed are some of Davis’ strongest assets. They are all on display here, and he garnishes the play with aggressive, but good, tackling.
The biggest things that happen here are defensive linemen Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt disrupting the blocking. Hargrave moves laterally, just a bit, to the offensive right. However, he keeps his arms extended and the blocker under his control. Tuitt gets cut down by the running back, but his momentum carries him close enough to running back Paul Perkins that Perkins abandons his lane.
All the while, Davis has been flying up from the deep defensive backfield. In fact, he started 15 yards off the line at the snap, but met Perkins right at the line, dropping him for no gain. The play was important: on the very next play, Giants tackle Ereck Flowers was caught holding Steelers linebacker James Harrison in the end zone, resulting in a safety.
For his part, Davis wasn’t done in the run game.
2nd Quarter, 11:55 Remaining, 1st & 10
This was all about pre-snap recognition. You don’t see it in the play above, but it was clear Davis saw something before the snap and changed his alignment. He ended up stacked directly behind linebacker Bud Dupree.
Dupree moves toward the center of the line off the snap, mirroring the entire right side of the offensive line. The tight end moves to counter him, while receiver Odell Beckham Jr. swings wide until he sees Davis making a bee line for the backfield. Davis’ acceleration was the real key here, as he got by Beckham before the receiver was able to correct and make a block. The play looked to be a designed run to the right, exactly where Davis was coming from.
Davis did a few nice things in the passing game, too, although Eli Manning didn’t throw in his vicinity much. One of the few times he did, Davis made him pay.
4th Quarter, 11:41 Remaining, 4th & 13
Once you’ve watched this play through a few times, one of the things that becomes immediately obvious is Davis’ recovery speed. From the way cornerback William Gay plays wide receiver Sterling Shepard, it looks as if Gay assumed Davis was going to be cheating toward the offensive left, rather than the right, as he jams Shepard and then immediately tries to pass him off. Unfortunately, no one was home when he did that. Davis had dropped to cover the deep middle, then committed to the offensive right just as Shepard was clearing Gay.
But Davis had his eyes on Manning, and saw the quarterback recognize how open Shepard was, and broke back to the other side just Manning released the ball. Manning was on the run and throwing back across his body, and his inability to set his feet caused him to loft the ball high and short. Shepard wasn’t able to get into position before Davis made a great jumping interception.
Yes, he should have simply batted the pass down. But I’m willing to overlook that, considering it was the kid’s first interception.
As the Steelers head to Buffalo to take on the Bills’ league-leading rushing attack, Davis will be needed for support in both facets of the defense. The Bills have receiver Sammy Watkins and running back LeSean McCoy, both of whom present matchup nightmares. Davis will have to be at the top of hi game, but of the last three games are indicative of his future, then one thing is for sure: that future looks bright.