For the Steelers, finding some sort of solidification in the secondary has been a problem since guys like Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, and Ryan Clark graced their defensive backfield. Now, there is no indication of who will even be amongst the cornerback group when the season opens in Cleveland in less than two weeks.
The safeties are pre-determined. Mike Mitchell is the team’s free safety, assuming he returns from injury in time. He has never missed a game in his Steelers tenure. Opposite of him, Sean Davis, entering his sophomore season in the league, will be the team’s strong safety. This was the tandem last year and it was a solid one that helped lead Pittsburgh to an AFC Championship game.
Outside of Artie Burns, the cornerback situation isn’t so prepared.
With every training camp, there are young guys and veterans who battle for spots in the starting eleven on defense. In Steelers camp this season, it’s been the younger guys stepping up at the cornerback position while some long tenured veterans may lose their starting job and, quite possibly, their roster spot.
Ross Cockrell has had a horrific camp and has looked outmatched in the Steelers’ three preseason games to date. He was burned on a sure touchdown so he committed a defensive pass interference to try and prevent it. He was later beat on a downfield sideline pass. He looks very ill-composed and doesn’t have the foot speed necessary to stick with the athletic wide receivers of today’s NFL.
Another Steelers cornerback, William Gay, could soon find his roster spot taken from beneath him. Gay, 32, was the team’s slot cornerback last season and was the number one guy until Burns’ emergence in his rookie season last year. Now, Gay is battling offseason acquisition Coty Sensabaugh for that spot. Sensabaugh seems to be winning the battle.
The Steelers decided to use two of their draft picks in the spring on cornerbacks to try and add some meaningful depth with a guy like Gay beginning to age and this league quickly transitioning to a passing league. The receivers are getting better so the defense must continue to produce cornerbacks who can cover these athletic freaks.
They chose Cameron Sutton in the third round, a 5’11” corner out of Tennessee. Sutton was a starter as a true freshman and had been part of the defense at Tennessee ever since. He was drafted along with his roommate at Tennessee, quarterback Josh Dobbs.
Brian Allen, the Steelers’ fifth round selection, is a tall 6’3″ and played his college ball at Utah. His college career actually marked the beginning of his transition from a wide receiver to a cornerback. He has issues with tackling but is quick for his size and could be a practice squad candidate as he learns more about how to be a cornerback.
A longshot to make the team when camp started, Mike Hilton has impressed in camp and may have done enough to take a job. If not, Hilton has been on his third team since signing with Jacksonville as an undrafted free agent in 2016. He may get another chance somewhere after his solid contributions thus far. Or, he’ll have the chance to impress for the Steelers and make a name for himself.
While there are many questions to be answered before week one, it seems that the Steelers may have some depth at cornerback. They made it to the AFC Championship game last year with an average secondary. The Steelers have advanced one round further than the previous year the past three seasons. If you believe in liner progression, this group of cornerbacks will see you in the Super Bowl.