The Steelers' defense was a stellar defense against the Cincinnati Bengals in week two. That was due in large part to outstanding play by the usual suspects -- Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons, Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward, among others -- but also because of the play of cornerback Ross Cockrell and corner/safety Sean Davis.
But let's not let those contributions overshadow those by a group that got a lot of the blame last year: the safeties.
Gone this year is Will Allen, who was the primary starter since Troy Polamalu retired. His replacement, Robert Golden, is showing to have a high ceiling, indeed -- and he's got a long way to go before he reaches it.
His counterpart, Mike Mitchell, has had his share of grief after playing 2014 with a groin injury and suffering some glaring mental lapses in 2015.
Well, hopefully week two is indicative of things to come, because this dynamic duo were, perhaps, the best defenders on the field Sunday. And it's their versatility that shined brightly.
Golden is a run-stuffer
What was so sorely missing with Will Allen in the lineup was that instinctive-yet-technical player needed to assist in the run game, the way Polamalu did all those year. Golden is no Polamalu -- no one will ever be, most likely -- but he plays the run extremely well nonetheless.
You can see just before the snap that Golden is already feeling the run, as he sees the tight end begin sliding to his right. Golden slides along with him, and is immediately moving toward the line of scrimmage at the snap. He doesn't immediately go to full speed, instead showing the patience of a running back, waiting for a hole to develop. He keeps his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage the whole time, though, and is able to make quick adjustments on the fly and without losing speed as a result.
As soon as he sees the hole open, he fills it, taking away Hill's intended lane on this counter run. Hill begins breaking further to his left but, because Golden stayed squared to to the line and did not over-pursue, he is in position to wrap Hill up and drag him to the ground. Picture-perfect run defense by a strong safety.
Safeties combine to keep four points off the scoreboard
Head coach Mike Tomlin preaches versatility -- "more multiple", in his words -- and these safeties fit the bill. One thing you immediately notice about them is they play the game in a similar fashion. This is a great thing to have in your back pocket, because they can be interchanged if need be.
Golden, though, takes that one step further and plays a hybrid safety/linebacker role at times, much the way that Polamalu did in his later years. We see both of them on display here, as Mitchell and Golden both played this third-and-seven like linebackers.
Here, the Bengals use four vertical routes -- as vertical as you can get from the 12-yard line, at least -- to clear out middle underneath for Giovanni Bernard.It worked well -- except the Steelers dropped seven into coverage, with Golden playing the dime linebacker. Davis is playing the deep safety.
From the snap. Mitchell cheats toward the right hashmarks while Golden moves to the left hashmarks. Both are just past the first-down marker. Both players actually identify Bernard as the intended receiver before the ball is thrown and break toward him. They converge on him and give up just one yard after the catch, stopping him three yards short of the first down. The Bengals would settle for a field goal.
Mitchell eats Bernard's lunch
Mitchell is a highly instinctive player in his own right. The biggest knocks on him have always been a tendency to go for the hit rather than wrapping the runner up, and for taking bad angles at times.
For this play, at least, he got it all figured out, and then some.
Mitchell is five yards beyond the first-down marker and 15 of the line of scrimmage here. What actually made this play possible from the start was the motion from the offensive left to the right. That made Golden's side the strong side, and kept Golden back in deep coverage. It left Mitchell with only one receiver on his side to help out with, giving him an opportunity to watch the backfield. So, as soon as he saw the left guard release from his block and move to create a blocking screen, he makes a break for the left flat.
Now, it's pretty easy to see that, even without Mitchell, it wasn't likely this play was going anywhere. There are three other Steelers in range to make an immediate play, so this wasn't likely to gain more than about three yards anyway. But that doesn't take anything away from Mitchell's instincts and his ability to read and react quickly. It also doesn't take away from his closing speed that allowed him to move 16 yards from the moment of recognition to the moment he meets Bernard two yards behind the line of scrimmage.
If the safeties continue to grow individually and together, it's going to further solidify an already surprising defensive backfield. That means nothing but good things.
If you're a Steeler, at least.