Job Security in the NFL: Steelers Part 2
In Part 1 I posed the question, are there players on the Steelers who could find themselves displaced after an injury by the player who replaced them. The classic example is the guy in the picture above, who replaced Joey Porter (now Outside Linebackers Coach Porter) on Monday Night Football and never looked back.
I looked at the offense yesterday, and you can see that post here. Today let’s look at the defense.
Since the idea for the post came from a question on Bob Labriola’s Asked and Answered about Justin Gilbert, let’s begin with the secondary.
It’s strange to discuss the replacement of a guy who was just drafted this previous spring, but Sean Davis was injured in the Eagles game and didn’t practice on Wednesday or Thursday. Mike Tomlin has said that as a rookie if he can’t practice he can’t play.
This makes sense, as not only is he new in the system but the game plan presumably changes from week to week, and it’s hard to execute something well if you haven’t practiced. As it was Davis’ inexperience was exposed a couple of times. Which you can scarcely blame him for, as he has played slot corner up until last Sunday but was shifted to safety after Robert Golden was injured. It’s to his credit that he wasn’t completely overwhelmed. He was, however, close, at least according to Pro Football Focus, who has him as the lowest of the ranked safeties in the league. (The highest currently is Eric Weddle, who the dang Ravens signed…)
However, it’s hard to see him losing his job at this juncture. If he’s out for a week or two they will replace him with whoever they can—presumably Shamarko Thomas. His injury, and that to Robert Golden, potentially sets up an interesting cascade of things. Because potentially both Golden and Davis are out Shamarko gets another opportunity to demonstrate he belongs on an NFL roster. Whether he can take advantage of it is another matter. He has been given every opportunity up until now, as he was apparently drafted as Troy Polamalu’s heir apparent, and has been unable to secure the job.
It’s not only unfortunate for the Steelers but sad for Thomas, who apparently is capable in every aspect except the mental one. It’s difficult to see that changing, but there are very occasional cases where a guy just wakes up one day and has suddenly figured it out. But the hopes of this have faded considerably.
So if either Golden or Davis, (or, heaven forfend, both) should turn out to have long-term injuries, the Steelers are posed with a difficult situation. Jordan Dangerfield is the No. 3 for both the FS and SS positions. I’m not sure we’re ready to see the Jordan Dangerfield/Shamarko Thomas era, but stranger things have happened.
As Ed Bouchette pointed out earlier in the week, the only DBs on the open market are the ones who can’t play well enough for the NFL. This may be a slight exaggeration, but probably not. They would be more likely to sign someone from the practice squad. Those would be Jacob Hagen at safety and Al-Hajj Shabazz at corner. Shabazz has possibly the best name in (semi)professional football, but otherwise I’m hoping he can stay on the practice squad. UPDATE: Davis practiced yesterday and presumably will play, since the Steelers ruled Golden out.
Moving on to the corners, there isn’t much of anywhere for anyone to go at the moment. If you want to get really nervous go look at the depth chart. The No. 3 corner on one side is none other than Senquez Golson, who has not yet practiced. There is nothing to indicate that this situation won’t continue. The No. 3 backup on the other side is—no one. That’s right. Other than William Gay, Ross Cockrell, Artie Burns, and Justin Gilbert there is no one. Sean Davis was, in effect, the fifth corner. He will presumably continue to play safety until Golden is back. So I don’t think anyone is losing their job anytime soon.
Is it possible that Justin Gilbert could come in and play so well he would displace, say, William Gay? Sure. It’s silly to completely write anything off. I was reminded as I wrote the opponent preview for Sunday that last year right before the Steelers played the Chiefs a Kansas City beat writer basically eliminated the Chiefs from the playoffs. He said that since they would have to go at least 8-2 for the rest of the season, and since Jamaal Charles was out for the foreseeable future, and since the Chiefs had found any number of creative ways to lose games, the chances were practically nil. And yet they went 10-0 from that point and made the playoffs handily. Thus does the NFL make fools of us all.
But back to William Gay, if he stays healthy I’m guessing he won’t lose his job, at least this year. He’s too experienced and too capable of moving around. Even if Artie Burns plays well enough to take over the outside spot they could just move him back to the slot, unless Robert Golden returns quickly and Sean Davis is clearly the better choice. And in some ways it’s almost moot, as he is going to be on the field for dime packages.
On to the front seven. The situation up there is so flexible, it’s hard to say what’s what. But one thing I can see is Daniel McCullers suddenly figuring it out and consistently playing so well on running downs that Hargrave moves into what I think would be his best use, which is rotating with Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. Heyward in particular needs some help while he completes rehabbing the high ankle sprain. He just hasn’t quite been himself. Could, say, Ricardo Mathews or L.T. Walton outplay either of them? No. But honestly that is possibly the position with the most depth on the entire team.
As for the linebackers, the real question is, can the Steelers even field a full complement of them? As far as the OLBs go, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Anthony Chickillo getting more snaps. The question is, at whose expense? For what it’s worth, Pro Football Focus has the four OLBs ranked this way—James Harrison, Jarvis Jones, Arthur Moats, and Anthony Chickillo. Jones is not far below Harrison, actually. After being the best OLB on the field most of the preseason Moats is not playing particularly well, at least in PFF’s opinion.
And while I’m on the subject of PFF, someone needs to tell them that there’s a problem with their abbreviated heading for the OLBs. So as not to deal with the nuances of 4-3 and 3-4 nomenclature, they divide the front seven into Linebackers (LB in the menu bar), Interior Defenders (DI in the menu bar, oddly,) and Edge Defenders. You guessed it—ED. Given all the ED-type commercials (and I don’t mean Edge Defender) we’re all forced to sit through on broadcasts and sports radio, you would think they would choose a different abbreviation…
On to the inside linebackers. This is possibly the deepest position on the team, which is just as well, as Ryan Shazier seems to have to sit almost as much as he plays. I guess that’s just something you accept with a talent like his. But some of the depth lacks experience—in Tyler Matakevich’s case, at all, in Steven Jackson’s case, in the PIT system. Could I see one of L.J. Fort, Vince Williams, Matakevich or Johnson outplaying Lawdog? I hate to say it, but yes I could. Probably not in the next week or two, though. In the meantime, some of these guys will get a chance to strut their stuff as Shazier is out for Sunday.
In short, injuries are a big part of life in the NFL for most teams, although the Steelers have been particularly hard-hit in the past year. We tend to view injuries as wholly bad, but from the standpoint of a guy well down the depth chart they definitely have an upside. Sometimes the guy who is the “next man up” becomes the “next man.” It’s interesting to speculate who that might be.