Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 13.
Marcus Allen, Nat Berhe, Morgan Burnett, Jordan Dangerfield, Sean Davis, Terrell Edmunds
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1; 1 unrestricted – Nat Berhe)
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).
In terms of individual takeaway production, the safeties combined for two of the eight interceptions, with Terrell Edmunds and Sean Davis finishing with one apiece. Edmunds’ came against Tampa Bay in the third game of the regular season, and Davis’ came against the Saints when Sean Payton replaced Drew Brees with Taysom Hill and had him attempt a deep pass into the end zone.
When the Steelers had reported to training camp at the end of July 2018, the plan called for Davis to move to free safety and for veteran free agent acquisition Morgan Burnett to start at strong safety, with rookie first-round pick Edmunds playing in sub-packages while learning the ways of the NFL. But when Burnett was nagged by injuries through the summer and then was inactive for four of the first six games with groin and back injuries, the plan had to change. Edmunds ended up starting 15 games and played a lot of defensive snaps as he was forced to learn on the job.
The other veteran signed as an unrestricted free agent – Nat Berhe – made even less of an impact than Burnett. Cast as someone who would help improve special teams, Berhe was injured after the fourth regular season game and spent the rest of the season on the injured reserve list. He was credited with one special teams tackle for the season.
As it turned out, the switch of Davis to free safety turned out to be the most effective move made at this position. After allowing 13 pass plays of 40-or-more yards in 2017, the Steelers made Davis the last line of defense and the unit ended up allowing only seven pass plays of 40-or-more yards in 2018.
ONE STAT THAT MATTERS
In 1940, a time when an NFL season was made up of 11 games, the Steelers defense finished with nine interceptions vs. a schedule of opponents that attempted 192 passes the whole year. In 2018, over the course of 16 games and 566 opponents’ pass attempts, the Steelers defense finished with eight interceptions.
LOOKING AHEAD TO 2019
As first reported by NFL.com, Burnett asked the Steelers to release him from the final two years of the contract he signed a year ago because he was unhappy with his role in the defense, a role that evolved as a result of him being injured through much of training camp, the preseason, and the first six weeks of the regular season.
By the time Burnett returned from injury, Edmunds was entrenched as the starting strong safety, and Burnett’s role became that of the dime linebacker, a job that had him lining up closer to the line of scrimmage. Burnett ended up playing 11 games with two starts – vs. Kansas City on Sept. 16 and vs. Cincinnati on Dec. 30 when Edmunds was injured – and he finished with 27 tackles and five passes defensed.
Burnett is due to be paid $5 million in salary in 2019, and granting him his request would cost the Steelers $2.83 million in dead cap money.
“Players will talk to us about their situation,” said Colbert about Burnett’s request. “Coach (Mike) Tomlin does exit interviews with each and every player. They know where they fit and what we felt about them last year, but again, just like I talked about the Antonio situation, whatever move we make with any player, it’ll be for our benefit and our benefit only.”
Berhe is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, and based on 2018 there would seem to be little incentive to bringing him back. Marcus Allen, one of the team’s two fifth-round draft choices last April, was inactive for all but two games as a rookie, and when the coaches were looking for a safety to help against an opponent’s running attack the choice was Jordan Dangerfield.
The key guys, both for this unit and for the continued evolution of the defense as a whole, are Edmunds and Davis. Both have the measurables for the roles the Steelers seem to have in mind for them, but in 2018 neither was as productive as is going to be necessary for the defense to take the next step.
Since Chuck Noll retired after the 1991 season, the Steelers have had only three safeties who could be considered guys who regularly made plays on the ball. Darren Perry, an eighth round draft choice in 1992, had 32 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries in 110 games; Brent Alexander, signed as an unrestricted free agent in 2000, had 15 interceptions and three fumble recoveries in 64 games; and Troy Polamalu, a No. 1 pick in 2003, had 32 interceptions and seven fumble recoveries in 158 games.
“I think takeaways can be addressed,” said Steelers President Art Rooney II. “No. 1, on defense we just have to be aggressive in taking the ball away and finding players who can do that. So I think that is something you can improve, and we need to do that.”
Whether Edmunds and/or Davis have the skill-set to become defensive playmakers is yet to be determined, but as Rooney said there is no argument that this defense needs to find some players who are.
NEXT: Inside linebackers