The last in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency at 4 p.m. today, March 13.
Brian Allen, Artie Burns, Joe Haden, Mike Hilton, Coty Sensabaugh, Cam Sutton, Herb Waters
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1; 1 unrestricted – Coty Sensabaugh)
A LAST LOOK AT 2018
By the time the 2018 season ended, the Steelers defense was ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in eight different categories, but where the unit turned out to be woefully inadequate was in the area of creating takeaways. Only four teams – Green Bay, Detroit, Arizona, and San Francisco – finished with fewer interceptions than the Steelers’ eight, and the only teams with fewer than their 15 total takeaways were Detroit (14) and San Francisco (seven).
To put the Steelers’ 2018 interception total in perspective, their eight interceptions tied the all-time franchise low. The 1940 Steelers also finished that season with eight interceptions, but those eight interceptions were recorded in an 11-game season in which the defense faced only 192 pass attempts. The 2018 team’s eight interceptions were posted in a 16-game season in which the defense faced 566 pass attempts.
“Well, I think statistically we did (improve on defense),” said Steelers President Art Rooney II on Jan. 20. “I mean, look, the defense at times I thought played strong. I thought the front seven, in particular, had a pretty good year. We got pressure on the quarterback for most of the season, and so I like the direction there. The defensive backs, that scenario I think we need to improve on, and obviously not being able to hold onto leads at the end of some of the games – that was another cause for concern. So, there’s certainly room for improvement, but yes, I would say I think we took some steps in the right direction.”
Joe Haden was the only player to record more than one interception, and he ended up leading the team with two. The only other cornerbacks to record an interception were Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton, who each had one. As for fumble recoveries, Hilton was the only cornerback to post a number in that category, and he led the team with two.
The regular season began with Artie Burns starting opposite Haden, but in rather short order he went from full-time starter to sharing time with Coty Sensabaugh to getting no snaps at all on defense. The splitting of time with Sensabaugh began as early as the Sept. 24 game in Tampa, and then Burns’ playing time on defense gradually decreased. After the Oct. 14 game in Cincinnati, he had only two tackles on defense the rest of the season – one against Carolina on Nov. 8 and one against New England on Dec. 16.
Haden was the best player within this unit, and throughout the latter portions of the regular season schedule he was being matched up against the weekly opponent’s best receiver.
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
There have been 13 seasons in franchise history, which now stands at 86 seasons and counting, where the defense has recorded fewer than 13 interceptions. Seven of those 13 seasons with fewer than 13 intercpetions have come since 2007.
LOOKING AHEAD TO 2019
There have to be more takeaways, more interceptions generated by the defense, and there isn’t a single unit that doesn’t need to step up in this area. Cornerbacks are at the top of the list, because the Steelers defense faced 1,243 pass attempts over the previous two seasons and had only 24 interceptions, a 1.9 interception percentage.
“Look, we’ve sacked the quarterback at a very good rate, but our takeaways are not very good at all,” said General Manager Kevin Colbert. “It’s really reflective on the players we have back there. What we want to look at, what we want to value looking forward is let’s value the takeaway-capable guys who have shown they’ve been able to do that in college.
“Our game has always been about getting physical players who can come off the corner and close off the edge and make a tackle. But are they doing that at the expense of not making plays on the football? We have to maybe try to find that balance and maybe be more open to the concept that the game is constantly changing and if you want playmakers in the back end, then find someone who has done it.”
The Steelers ended the 2018 season with 10 defensive backs on their 53-man roster, and what those guys accomplished in college in the category of takeaways can be viewed as a mixed bag.
Cam Sutton played 44 college games and finished with seven interceptions, 30 passes defensed, and two fumble recoveries. In 38 games at Maryland, Sean Davis had five interceptions, 14 passes defensed, and seven forced fumbles. Joe Haden had eight interceptions in 40 games at Florida. Coty Sensabaugh finished with four interceptions and 14 passes defensed in 52 college games.
In 34 games at Miami, Artie Burns had seven interceptions, six in his final season. Marcus Allen played 49 games at Penn State and had one interception and five forced fumbles. Mike Hilton had six interceptions, 26 passes defensed, and four forced fumbles in 36 college games. For Brian Allen, it was five interceptions and nine passes defensed in 26 games. Six interceptions, 14 passes defensed, and two fumble recoveries in 35 games for Terrell Edmunds; and 14 interceptions in 40 games for Morgan Burnett.
“Artie Burns, unfortunately, Artie took a step backwards last year,” said Colbert. “It’s something we have talked about with him. Artie technically wasn’t a starter from a certain point in the season, and Artie has got to find his confidence. He really does. That’s something that we talk to him about. He’s got to re-find it. Does he have the talent? Have we seen it? Have we seen him be productive? We have, but unfortunately last year he took a step back, and again, we’ll find out if he can find it. Is that going to stop us from challenging his position with other players? Absolutely not, because he has to prove that he can do it.”
In the quest for more takeaways, anything and everything could end up being on the table here, with the lone exception of Haden remaining in his role as the No. 1 cornerback. What is going to prove to be interesting during the upcoming offseason program and then on into training camp and the preseason is the development of some of the younger members of this unit.
Brian Allen, as one example, came to the team as an interesting prospect because of his measurables (6-foot-3, 215 pounds), but he has been unable to carve out playing time for himself on defense, and 2019 will be the final year of his current contract. Is this the year Allen makes a move to get himself onto the field? Is he a cornerback? Or is he a safety?
A similar situation exists for Sutton, a third-round pick in 2017, who also has had a young career that so far has included more promise than playing time. Is Sutton more of a slot cornerback or an outside cornerback, and can he transition the ball skills he showed in college to the NFL?
The night before the official opening of free agency, the Steelers reportedly agreed to terms with Kansas City’s Steven Nelson (5-11, 194), who became a full-time starter in 2016, one year after entering the league as a third-round pick from Oregon State. Injuries limited Nelson to just nine games in 2017, but in 2018 he had 68 tackles, 15 passes defensed, and four interceptions. As of right now, Nelson would be considered the favorite to start opposite Haden.
It’s also safe to assume there will be draft picks spent here as well. Because those takeaway numbers have to improve. Have. To. Improve.