For the better part of a decade, one of the Steelers weakest parts of the defense has been at cornerback. Much like the little dutch boy, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin kept using their fingers to plug the holes in the leaky dike until they could start rebuilding the position the right way. For far too long, with the exception of Ike Taylor, the Steelers seemed to have an affinity for cornerbacks whose size made it a challenge for them to get on most rides at Kennywood, let alone to cover all of the 6’4″ receivers that inhabit the AFC North. Since 2015, the Steelers have shed most of those failed experiments and have brought in a couple of big, physical corners that they have desperately needed, and by the end of this past season, the difference in the secondary has been like night and day.
Ross Cockrell and Artie Burns have gone through their share of growing pains to say the least, but they have also flashed the type of play that will eventually have quarterbacks thinking twice before throwing the ball into their areas of coverage. What really stood out though, unlike in previous years, is that these two are able to run with and challenge the biggest receivers on the deep ball. Having Burns and Cockrell on the outside allowed Willie Gay to move to the inside to cover the slot receiver, where he is better suited and much less exposed.
Since signing as a free agent from Buffalo prior to the 2015 season, Ross Cockrell has been a steady presence in the defensive backfield for the Steelers, who valued his football IQ prior to the 2014 NFL Draft. While Cockrell isn’t great in any one particular aspect of his position, he has proven to be a smart, heads up player who has been more than capable of doing everything that has been asked of him. Ross Cockrell finished the season with 62 tackles and 14 passes defended, which includes a very impressive effort against T.Y. Hilton on a go route down the right sideline on Thanksgiving. On a perfectly thrown ball, Cockrell’s coverage was so tight that the ref had his penalty flag at the ready but never had cause to throw it. In the past two seasons Cockrell has developed into one of the more underrated corners in the league, and one of Kevin Colbert’s better free agent signees.
It’s been rare that a rookie cornerback for the Steelers gets very much playing time other than the occasional appearance in a nickel or dime package, but Artie Burns isn’t just any rookie. Burns is the first cornerback drafted by the Steelers in the first round since Chad Scott in 1997, only much more talented, and became a starter by game eight. While he certainly had his share of rookie mistakes, Burns, who possesses the maturity of a veteran, quickly put them behind him and was soon showing everyone why he was a first round draft pick. Artie finished the season with 65 tackles, 13 passes defended, and 3 interceptions, showing he was more willing to throw his body around than he was initially given credit for. Statistically, Burns also had a better season than the higher profile corners that were picked before him, allowing fewer than 60% of the passes thrown his way to be caught.
The arrival and growth of Artie Burns allowed Willie Gay to move back inside to cover the slot receivers, which is where he is best suited to play. Quicker than he is fast, Gay looked much more comfortable than he has in awhile. Without the burden of having to cover wide receivers who are much bigger and faster than he is, Gay responded with 58 tackles, 7 passes defended, 1.5 sacks, and 1 interception. Willie Gay, who took a beating earlier in his career from being miscast as an outside corner, has become a savy veteran in a similar fashion as did former cornerback DeShea Townsend. From 2013-2015 Gay returned 6 straight interceptions for touchdowns which tied a Steelers record.
Outlook for 2017
The Steelers have improved greatly in this area over the last few seasons but nonetheless, they have a few decisions to make. The first one is whether or not they are going to bring back William Gay, who will be 32 next season. Ideally, the best case scenario would be for Senquez Golson to come back healthy and perform well enough for him to take over opposite Artie Burns, moving Ross Cockrell inside. As good as Cockrell has been in the number two role, it would really benefit the defense greatly if Golson is able to push him to the number three spot. With a full year in the system now, the Steelers should anticipate a big step forward for Artie Burns, who performed like a veteran the last half of the season, showing plenty of poise and ball instincts.
With the top three spots all but locked up, the Steelers will most likely add another cornerback within in the first two rounds of the draft to help add depth to the thinning ranks. For camp competition the Steelers will bring back Al-Hajj Shabazz (6’2″/200 lbs), who was activated towards the end of the season, along with Brandon Dixon, and Mike Hilton. The most intriguing player recently signed just might be Devonte Johnson out of Weber State, who recently spent time with the Atlanta Falcons. Johnson is a tremendous athlete with a 41″ verticle leap and a nose for the ball. Johnson and can play both inside and out. With the uncertain future of Willie Gay, Johnson may have the best chance out of all the extra camp bodies of making the final roster. Potential targets for the Steelers in the draft could be Desmond King (5’11″/202 lbs) – Iowa, TreDavious White (6’0″/184 lbs) – LSU, Cameron Sutton (5’11″/182 lbs) – Tenn, and Gareon Conley (6’0″/195 lbs)- OSU.