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Tomlin: Work still to be done on secondary

ORLANDO, Fla. - Of the seven defensive backs on the Steelers' roster in 2023 who played at least 400 snaps, only cornerback Joey Porter Jr. and safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Damontae Kazee are currently still members of the team.

Corners Levi Wallace and Chandon Sullivan became free agents at the start of the new league year earlier this month, while the Steelers released cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Keanu Neal in the days before free agency began.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said Monday at the annual NFL meetings here in Orlando that the team still has work to do in rebuilding its secondary – among other things.

The Steelers took steps toward that recently, adding safety DeShon Elliott in free agency and trading for cornerback Donte Jackson.

But more work remains to be done, specifically at slot cornerback.

"We've got some candidates, but obviously we're probably still looking," Tomlin said at the AFC coaches breakfast Monday morning. "I think that's the position that we're all looking for and looking at annually because some of the demands that come with the position in the NFL are somewhat different than in college. In college, oftentimes that guy is a safety-like guy.

"The coverage is so significant in the NFL, that most of the time that guy's a corner-like guy, so I think we're all kind of scouring that position annually and seeing what's available in terms of ready main talent and so forth."

Fitzpatrick has the ability to play in the slot and did so at times for the Steelers last season. Kazee also played in the slot earlier in his career. But Porter is an outside cornerback, while Jackson rarely played just 173 career snaps in the slot compared to nearly 3,700 on the outside in his previous six seasons in Carolina.

The addition of Elliott could free Fitzpatrick up to play more in the slot in 2024. Elliott, who began his career with the Ravens before playing with the Lions and Dolphins the past two seasons, has largely played free safety in his career, but has experience as the strong safety, as well, giving the Steelers flexibility with both he and Kazee.

"I'm really excited that he's here. He is a really good tackler. He's a really good communicator. He has some natural traits that I think really makes you excited about adding to your defense from a safety perspective," Tomlin said. "And he's not a newbie by any stretch. He's been in the league. We're familiar with him. He's familiar with us, and I just think that makes me really excited."

But the Steelers might prefer to utilize Fitzpatrick, one of the NFL's best playmakers in the secondary, in different ways. Fitzpatrick missed seven games due to injury in 2023, but played 223 snaps aligned in the deep middle of the field, 149 in the box and 134 in the slot.

He had 64 tackles last season, but failed to force a turnover for the first time in his six NFL seasons. In 2022, he led the NFL with six interceptions.

Tomlin has no concerns about Fitzpatrick getting back to his playmaking ability in 2024.

"I don't," Tomlin said. "To me, it's about availability. If he's available, he's going to be making plays."

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

One option the Steelers could also turn to would be a potential return of Peterson.

The 13-year veteran spent time both outside and in the slot for the Steelers in 2023. Peterson hasn't signed elsewhere in free agency and has expressed some interest in a return to Pittsburgh, where he had 42 tackles, two interceptions and 11 pass defenses last season.

Tomlin said that remains a possibility.

"We're open to it as well," Tomlin said. "But, you know, there's so much business in front of us and we just felt like it was appropriate to be transparent with him to give him an opportunity to assess what's out there totality."

• Three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald retired last week after 10 seasons with the Rams.

Tomlin was asked about his thoughts on the former Pitt star and Pittsburgh native.

Donald frequently has  worked out at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, which the Steelers share with the University of Pittsburgh, in the offseason over the course of his career.

"I think my memories about him are probably more personal than an impact on the game," Tomlin said "I've had the pleasure of knowing him since he was about 18 years old and I just have witnessed his relationship that he has had with the game. I've seen him get out of his car when it was still very dark in the morning and working solo over the course of a 12-month calendar.

"I remember when the Rams won the Super Bowl, it was probably less than a week later, I saw him getting out of his car in Pittsburgh with a sweats on and his bag, going to work out and I think that's just indicative of who he is as a football man. And why he's had the type of career he's had an impact on the game he's had. The secret is there's no secret. This guy has built that thing brick by brick and I'm just so respectful of what he's done and how he's gone about it."

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