The Pittsburgh Steelers have had questions at the cornerback position for years and have drafted players in the top two rounds at the position in the past two seasons. However it was a fourth round pick from the 2015 NFL draft that shined the brightest of the youngest group last Friday night against the Detroit Lions.
Doran Grant came onto the Steelers' roster last season looking to be a potential safety/cornerback, but was ultimately cut from the team. After being signed back to Pittsburgh, he appears to have worked his way up the depth chart to see significant snaps behind the expected starters, William Gay and Ross Cockrell (with Sean Davis playing safety but covering slot receivers).
While Grant did record an interception and return it for a touchdown, this was not what drew our attention in the film room here at BTSC. Consistently throughout the first half, Grant showed very solid tackling fundamentals and made multiple plays in open space against speedy players that could have resulted in big plays, but did not thanks to his efforts. We take a look at some of those moments with this article.
Breaks down into defensive stance consistently:
The first thing we noticed was how consistent Grant's approach was to each receiver when they caught the ball. As Grant runs up to his target, he breaks down into a good defensive stance with his feet apart to give him a solid base to move with and his arms out so he can be prepared to wrap up his opponent and make the tackle. This angle shows what he goes for in his tackles, even if he does cross his feet when he shuffles a bit here. The play is made and he almost recovers a fumble that resulted from him being able to hold the receiver up just long enough for Vince Williams to bring the cavalry and knock the ball loose.
Grant showed speed against the Lions over short distances. He often was lined up ten or more yards on his receiver and had to fly up to his man to make a tackle. Often when doing so, defensive players, and especially young defensive players, forget to break down and make the form tackle and instead go for a big hit with all their momentum. Doing the latter makes for more missed tackles and against speedy players that can become costly for a team in unnecessary situations.
Grant avoids that problem here and despite flying up to the ball, he still manages to get into his stance and attack the midsection of the receiver enough to record the solo tackle.
Wraps his targets up:
Once again you see Grant's closing speed on a play that's designed to be a short pass to get easy yards on first down. Grant closes a distance of over ten yards and breaks down into his stance five yards in front of the ball carrier. When he attacks to make the tackle, he comes from a position of strength with his solid stance and is able to make the best effort at the receiver before he picks up speed.
Dealing with stiff arms is something that a lot of players young and old have a hard time dealing with in today's NFL, but Grant showed no problems making the play here. He gets his hands on the both the front and back of his man and takes on the stiff arm by hanging on and bringing his man down. His hand placement avoids the horse collar and he makes a solid play to force a second and long.
Look for consistency:
Pittsburgh is going to need to see more tackles like this from Grant for him to see more snaps as the season goes on, but this was a good sample size of what to look for in a tackling cornerback. The Steelers' defense under Keith Butler and his predecessor, Dick LeBeau, prided its cornerbacks on being able to play back to prevent the big play and come up to make sure tackles in order to force offenses to make several consistent short plays instead of one or two long ones that score quickly. Tackling was arguably the first major trait that got William Gay a consistent spot at the top of the depth chart for the position, and it could be the first step to Grant earning his keep on this new incarnation of a Pittsburgh defense.
While more needs to be seen from Grant, if you study his fundamentals, you will see that he has made a major improvement from last preseason. If you are still on the "Carnell Lake can't coach tackling" train, you should probably get off now. Beyond the fact that not every NFL player is coachable enough to just absorb what you're teaching every week and apply it into their daily routine, Lake has made some solid players from a limited talent pool that he was given. William Gay was a journeyman cornerback years ago, but now he is one of the best in the NFL. Ross Cockrell was cut from the Buffalo Bills last season, but came on strong in Pittsburgh to earn the second spot on the depth chart at the position and prove to be reliable.
Grant is still far from a polished player, but his display of fundamentals shows exactly what the Steelers have traditionally looked for in their cornerbacks. If you think that because a bunch of rookies, low round picks or undrafted players not making tackles is indicative of a horrible coach, I invite you to watch the second half of every NFL preseason game and see just how par-for-the-course Pittsburgh's back ups are in comparison. When you consider how little attention Pittsburgh has put into the position until two seasons ago, it makes sense that you would not see consistent production from the position.
Grant has been, and still is, a project of a player, but his date to be ready for regular NFL action could be a lot sooner than anticipated. Keep an eye out for Grant as the Steelers face the Philadelphia Eagles this week.