In case we haven’t written it enough over the last three months, writing about football this time of year is a pain in the keister. There’s plenty of chatter on the various Steeler blogs and websites. Much of it is silly, most notably the redundant drone of the draft speculation. Every year, there’s a consensus pick whose name is mentioned more than Mike Tomlin, Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger put together. The consensus pick is never picked by the Steelers. Nevertheless, he is nauseatingly blogged, over and over. This year’s winner is Eli Apple. Chances are he won’t be in Latrobe this summer.
This leads me to today’s topic — Secondary Concerns. In every silly season, there is a dominant obsession bedeviling Yinzer magpies, usually related to an illusory concern which will most certainly wreck the Steelers in the coming season. This year’s winner is the certitude of the ineptitude of the Steelers’ secondary.
Well, there’s no doubt that Carnell Lake’s DB corps could be upgraded. However, last year’s secondary was not as bad as the conventional “wisdom” says it was.
The most cited statistic by the Heckles and Jeckles is that Pittsburgh ranked 30th in passing yards surrendered to opponents last season. Under the magnifying glass, it looks bad., but dig just a bit deeper and the picture is a tad less grim.
Firstly, the Steelers were fifth in rushing yards allowed, sixth in yards per carry allowed (3.78). Undoubtedly, the inability to run effectively influenced opponents to throw the ball more against Pittsburgh. Even so, the Steelers finished 15th in yards allowed per pass, a little better than the league average.
Football Outsiders ranked the pass defense 15th in the NFL, up from 30th in 2014. Overall, Football Outsiders ranked the Steelers’ defense 11th.
The Black and Gold also ranked 11th in points allowed—19.8. Giving due consideration to an offense that can regularly put 30 points on you, our defense and secondary were, at worst, good enough to win just about any game last year.
So why the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the secondary? We re-signed Willie Gay and Ross Cockrell. Boykin and Blake were allowed to walk. The front office failed to sign any free agents from other teams, including MCFA (most coveted free agent) Eric Weddle, age 31.
The vocal yokels have bemoaned the loss of Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin, squawking about the lack of experienced cornerbacks. In a fine article on Steelers.com Bob Labriola reminds those fans that Blake was the cornerback most blamed for the lack of a Super Bowl parade down Grant Street last February.
As Labriola pointed out:
. . . Antwon Blake (was) a guy who had been signed as an undrafted rookie by the Jaguars to play safety, was cut, picked off the waiver wire by the Steelers in 2013 to bolster special teams, and then a couple of years later had been pressed into a starting role on defense because Cortez Allen showed himself to be incapable of handling the job.
It didn’t really matter that Blake in fact wasn’t solely responsible, nor did it really matter that Blake was mis-cast as a starting cornerback in the first place. Blake became the face of the frustrations of Steelers Nation when it came to the assignation of blame for the pass defense, and that was that.
Until a couple of weeks ago, that is, when Blake signed with the Tennessee Titans as an unrestricted free agent. That’s when Blake began to be identified in some quarters as a piece of evidence for the argument the Steelers had become a worse team because of the free agents they had failed to re-sign.
Blake was bad, but whoever his replacement is will improve a secondary which was not terrible and was absolutely not the reason the Steelers failed to advance to the AFC Championship game.
As for the loss of Boykin, Labriola’s take was dead-on:
The guy on the opposite end of the fans’ irrational emotion spectrum is Brandon Boykin, or Mel Blount Jr., as he came to be called by the segment of the media covering the Steelers who were most often exposed to his unofficial social media fan club.
The reasons behind Boykin’s irregular role on the Steelers defense had to do with his inability, in the judgment of the coaching staff, to play an outside cornerback position, as well as his periodic lapses in the tackling requirements of his position. Now, understand that there is a difference between missing tackles, and not enthusiastically putting one’s body in the path of a guy with the football.
Boykin’s problem had to do with the latter.
He wasn’t physical, and that’s the way the Steelers want to play defense. Blake was more physical, and so Blake played.
Labriola pointed out that Boykin’s failure to make a tackle on Bennie Fowler in the 4th quarter of the Denver playoff game resulted in a key 33 yard gain. On the last play of the drive, Boykin, unblocked, failed to use his body to try keep C.J. Anderson out of the end zone. The touchdown scored by Anderson put Denver up by five points late in the game.
Clearly, the Steelers’ personnel people thought the players they had—Gay, Cockrell, Senquez Golson and Dorian Grant, and the players they would obtain in the draft or during the preseason were better than Blake and Boykin. Remember, we traded for Boykin in August and signed Cockrell in September last year.
We enter the draft with a better secondary than we had last year at this time. I think Golson will contribute and Grant and even Allen might surprise. And then, of course, there’s whoever we select instead of Eli Apple.