The lessons they learned about building an offensive line finally have been transferred to the defensive backfield.
When the Steelers took the field for Super Bowl XL at the conclusion of the 2005 NFL season, their offensive line was made up of No. 1 pick Alan Faneca, No. 1 pick Kendall Simmons, No. 2 pick Marvel Smith, Jeff Hartings, a No. 1 pick of the Detroit Lions before signing a free agent contract to come to Pittsburgh, and No. 3 pick Max Starks.
For whatever reasons, the Steelers got away from building their offensive line with premium draft picks, and when they took the field in Tampa for Super Bowl XLIII, the same unit was made up of sixth-round pick Chris Kemoeatu, undrafted free agent Darnell Stapleton, Justin Hartwig, who had been cut by the Carolina Panthers, fourth-round pick Willie Colon, and Starks
In 2005, Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 23 times. In 2008, Roethlisberger was sacked 46 times, and then when that number rose to 50 in 2009, the Steelers shifted their strategy and began to reverse the trend when they picked center Maurkice Pouncey on the first round in 2010. Today, their first-team offensive line includes two No. 1 picks in Pouncey and David DeCastro and a No. 2 pick in Marcus Gilbert.
The selection of Artie Burns yesterday was the first time the Steelers had used a No. 1 pick on a cornerback since 1997 – when it was Chad Scott – and then they kicked off their two-pick second day of this 2016 NFL Draft by going with Maryland safety Sean Davis.
This represented the first time the Steelers have gone one-two with defensive backs in the same draft since 1987 when it was Rod Woodson on the first round and then Delton Hall in the second round. Both of those guys were cornerbacks, and in the fourth round in 1987 the Steelers picked Baylor safety Thomas Everett.
During his college career, Davis (6-foot-1, 201 pounds) played both cornerback and safety, but defensive backs coach Carnell Lake said Davis will begin at strong safety for the Steelers, and in listening to coach talk about player, it became apparent that the coach could have been talking about himself when he entered the league as a player in 1989 as a No. 2 pick.
"His coverage skills, in my opinion, are very good," said Lake. "He has a lot of experience covering (slot receivers) and tight ends at safety, but he also played a year at corner, which gives him even more experience. You take a player like him who last year played corner who is going to come in and play safety, the game will slow down quite a bit for him inside and it'll be lot easier for him to cover. It's an added bonus for him to have experience in playing both positions in college."
The fact of the game in which Davis had the most experience was in making tackles, because he left Maryland with over 300 during his four seasons there, and the fact he forced five fumbles in 2015 alone is evidence that he was delivering a blow when he arrived at the man with the football. Lake also pointed out that Davis made a lot of the calls for the Terrapins defense, which indicated an understanding of the schemes and the ability to communicate that to his teammates in real time.
"When you have offenses that spread you out, as a lot of offensives do, 70 percent of the snaps now are passing plays in the league," said Lake. "When they spread you, offenses are spreading you out to create mismatches. They will put a player like (Rob) Gronkowski out wide and force you to match-up with either a linebacker or a safety on Gronkowski. Well, you have to have a guy who has the size and can cover. He provides that for us. That's one of the exciting parts of Sean Davis that we like."
The selection of Davis was an indication the Steelers have reassessed how they view defensive players based on the evolution of NFL offenses, and their third-round pick was further evidence of that. About South Carolina State defensive tackle Javon Hargrave (6-2, 295), assistant head coach John Mitchell said, "he was one of the few guys I've seen that you can leave on the field for all three downs."
In 36 college games over three seasons, all starts, Hargrave finished with 23.5 sacks and 40 tackles for loss, with 13.5 of the sacks and 22 of the tackles for loss coming in 2015. Mitchell said Hargrave will line up in the interior of the Steelers defensive line in certain situations and as a substitute for either Cam Heyward or Stephon Tuitt in others.
"I think a lot of people passed on this guy because they were afraid of the (level of) competition that he played," said Mitchell. "The thing I liked about him was every week that I watched him on tape he didn't play down to the talent he played against. He played up to his ability. This kid got better, better, better every week. The things that he does extremely well are some things you can't teach. He has a great first step off the ball. He plays with power. The things that he is going to have to learn when he comes here is he is going to have to learn how to play with his hands better, and he is going to have to be more consistent running to the ball."
As was the case with the first two picks of this draft – Artie Burns and Sean Davis – the addition of Hargrave addressed needs the Steelers openly spoke about in the long process leading up to the actual picking.
Almost as soon as the 2015 season ended, the Steelers talked about the need to find help for Heyward and Tuitt so they wouldn't have to play as many snaps per game as they had been playing, with the idea that being fresher would lead to being more productive.
"Yes, he'll be a nose. He can do that," said Mitchell. "I'm looking for some guys who can come in and help us, where Heyward and Tuitt don't have to play 65-to-70 snaps a game. I think if this guy comes in with the attitude he's had in college and works really hard to pick up our scheme, I think he can help us. I'll tell you this, he will give us a new dimension for a big man in our sub-packages."
And so, the re-tooling/reinforcing of the Steelers defense looks to be progressing nicely during the first two days of the 2016 NFL Draft, with the team seemingly committed to doing that by spending premium picks to accomplish it. History shows that very strategy has worked for them in the past.
"I'm excited," said Lake. "I've been coaching here for six years, and it's been a long time, as you know, since we've had a first rounder [for the secondary] for the Steelers. Now in back-to-back years, we've also had two second-round players. It's coming together. It feels good."