Erratic Steelers ‘D’ has major test
PITTSBURGH — When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Sean Davis in the second round last spring, defensive coordinator Keith Butler reveled in the possibilities.
Here was a 6-foot-1, 202-pound guy who could play both safety and cornerback depending on the situation, someone with the size and the speed to keep up with – if not totally neutralize – players like New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Davis may very well develop into such a player, but he’s not there yet.
“You would like to think we could put him on Gronk and say we got him,” Butler said. “I don’t think anybody can do that.”
Particularly on the NFL’s 30th-ranked pass defense, one that faces Gronkowski, Tom Brady and the rest of the NFL’s most diverse offenses on Sunday when the Patriots (5-1) visit Heinz Field. Brady’s lit up the Steelers for 24 touchdowns against just three interceptions in 10 career meetings with the Steelers (4-2), most of them against variations of the “Steel Curtain” that were far more imposing than the current iteration, one rife with inexperience, particularly in the secondary.
The growing pains have been evident. Davis has seen his playing time fluctuate and didn’t play one defensive snap in last week’s one-sided 30-15 loss to Miami . He may not get back in the lineup this weekend either. Cornerback Artie Burns, a first-round pick, is improving but still very much a work in progress. Special teams ace Rob Golden is in his first year as a starting safety and his main backup is Jordan Dangerfield, a former practice squad player.
Throw in linebacker Ryan Shazier — like Gronkowski a physical marvel — and the balky knee that’s kept him out of the lineup for a month plus a pass rush that’s been more rumor than fact in Pittsburgh’s two losses (zero sacks) and the prospect of facing a dominant Brady seems like a mismatch.
“We need to play more than one defense against these guys,” Butler said. “They’re very good. They can pick you apart if they can figure out what you’re doing.”
It’s finding the right looks to throw at Brady — who has pretty much seen everything — and the right people to put in the right places that’s the problem. Then there’s the issue of youthful exuberance. With so many fresh faces, the lure to try and go above and beyond while facing the NFL’s top tight end and a Hall of Fame quarterback is only too real.
“It’s tough sometimes,” Shazier said. “Guys want to make plays. You’re playing against one of the best guys and you want to see how you relate and everything like that.”
Shazier sees it happen regularly to opposing defenses trying to figure out what to do with Steelers All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown.
“Guys come up with a game plan to stop AB and when you’re not sound enough, he destroys you,” Shazier said.
It’s the same with Gronkowski, who set a career high with 162 yards receiving last Sunday.
against Cincinnati. Having Shazier back may help. And the Steelers are at least a little bit bigger — if not necessarily better — than the group that allowed Brady and Gronkowski to hook up for three scores in New England’s 28-21 victory in the 2015 opener. Burns is 6-feet tall, as are cornerbacks Ross Cockrell and Justin Gilbert.
While that’s still considerably smaller than the 6-6, 265-pound Gronkowski or the 6-7, 248-pound Martellus Bennett, it’s a start.
“I think it goes back to being disruptive,” said Cockrell, who’s had moderate success this season against bigger receivers like Cincinnati’s A.J. Green and Brandon Marshall of the New York Jets. “We’re going to be able to put our hands on some of these guys and disrupt them and disrupt their timing.”
Davis is hopeful to get in on the act. He understands why he’s not atop the depth chart. On a team with lesser ambitions, maybe he’d get to play through the mistakes. Not so on the AFC North leaders.
“I can’t complain or mope,” Davis said. “I’ve got to handle my (role).”
One that will continue its evolution on Sunday in a game that will be as much about mental and physical discipline as it is simple talent.
“If you abandon your job and help somebody out or try to be selfish and make a play when you really shouldn’t, they’re going to capitalize on it,” he said. “When the plays come your way, you’ve got to make’em.”
NOTES: Shazier practiced Thursday and is hopeful he can play. Golden (foot) and S Mike Mitchell (knee) also practiced for a second straight day. … T Marcus Gilbert (ankle), WR Markus Wheaton (shoulder) and RB DeAngelo Williams (knee) did not practice for a second straight day.