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Strength in numbers

The Steelers made keeping the band together in the defensive backfield a priority this offseason and wound up bringing almost everyone who played last season back for at least one more season this season.

But there was one notable exception.

"Definitely a lot of love and a lot of respect for Joe," said second-year secondary coach Grady Brown, acknowledging the departure of veteran Joe Haden. "We miss his energy.

"But the entire room has done a good job of just showing up every day and brining the proper energy that it takes to learn and put the work in and get better."

Haden, the former seventh-overall selection of the Browns in the 2010 draft, appeared in 68 games and started 67 over the last five seasons for the Steelers.

He wasn't re-signed following last season.

But cornerback Arthur Maulet, safety Miles Killebrew, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon and safety Terrell Edmunds were all brought back, Edmunds after exploring unrestricted free agency.

Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick (signed to a long-term contract extension this week) have started together at safety since Fitzpatrick's arrival two games into the 2019 season. Maulet played 35 percent of the defensive snaps last season, his first with the Steelers. Witherspoon participated in 57 percent of the defensive snaps in nine games with the Steelers (three starts) in 2021 after being acquired from the Seahawks. Killebrew, predominantly a special teams player, played 44 defensive snaps (four percent).

The Steelers also added cornerback Levi Wallace and safety Damontae Kazee in unrestricted free agency. Wallace started all 52 games in which he appeared for the Bills over the last four seasons and Kazee played in 69 games and started 49 for the Falcons (2017-20) and Cowboys (2021) prior to joining the Steelers.

When they last lined up at Kansas City in January, the Steelers went with Cam Sutton and Haden at cornerback and Edmunds and Fitzpatrick at safety in the base defense. Witherspoon came in and Sutton moved into the slot in the five-defensive backs "nickel" and then-rookie safety Tre Norwood was called upon in the six-defensive backs "dime."

But that was then.

What's next will be sorted out at training camp.

"We are working a lot of interchangeable pieces and seeing not just what guys can do but what we can do together, as well," Sutton said during Mandatory Veteran Minicamp. "It's all about matchups. It's all about showing the offense different things out there on the field week in and week out.

"Who knows? You might see Ahkello inside. You might see Levi inside. You might see other guys moving around. All of us are in this together. We're one link of a whole, so we need all the pieces."

Filling the hole in the lineup left by Haden's departure might presumably come down to a camp battle between Wallace and Witherspoon.

But Brown makes no such presumptions.

"Let's hope it's a position battle everywhere," he said. "Competition breeds top-notch effort, top-notch attention to detail, so we'd like to think that it's competition throughout the secondary.

"My job is just to make sure all the guys are playing at a high level. We'll find a way to get everyone on the field."

Edmunds said he didn't know who'd end up playing the majority of Haden's snaps when Mandatory Veteran Minicamp ended, but expressed confidence a capable replacement or replacements would eventually emerge.

"I wouldn't really call it uncertainty," he maintained. "I'd just call it a dogfight now.

"Yes, we had Joe. He was the older guy but now we have a bunch of different guys out there competing, trying to see who's gonna take that step of being the starter this week, the starter next week. And we have three guys, we have pretty much all our guys, that are starter capable."