Knowing What We Don’t Know, Part One: Did the Steelers Fix the Secondary?
By Ivan Cole
That was the question posed by Hombre in response to my last piece on the draft. The only responsible answer is, we don’t know. But in the sports matrix that we occupy, one where attitude often trumps facts, acknowledging ignorance can seem equivalent to weakness.
I have been thinking about a series that focuses upon our ignorance because I subscribe to the idea that ignorance is strength, in that it is the entry point to the path to wisdom. With that in mind I’d like to tackle some of the general assumptions that we make concerning the draft and related matters, as well as Hombre’s specific concern.
First question: Who says they weren’t a Super Bowl capable secondary last season? Specifically, did the secondary lose last season’s AFCCG, or did they just not win it?
It’s an important distinction when considering how areas of need are addressed going forward. Atlanta made it to the Super Bowl, and in the end Brady carved up their secondary like swiss cheese. As I have argued on several occasions, football, and especially defense, is ensemble work.
By all accounts, Joe Haden of the Cleveland Browns has been considered to be a very good defensive back. However, when confronted with a great receiver like Antonio Brown, in partnership with a great quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger, abetted by an offensive line that can give him more than three seconds (an eternity) to throw, Haden has often appeared to be incompetent. Would the answer be to find, if possible, an even better defensive back?
Mel Blount was a great cornerback. Playing behind Joe Greene and the other Steel Curtain defensive linemen undoubtedly made him better. In this sense, the best thing the Steelers might have done to improve their secondary play, regardless of how things turn out with Cameron Sutton and Brian Davis, is the acquisition of T.J. Watt. Solid front line play against the run and the past can mask a multitude of sins on the back end. Inadequate front line play can render the strengths of the back line irrelevant.
Second question(s). Let’s take the issue at face value, that is, that the quality of secondary play is dependent upon the personnel occupying the positions. Have the Steelers done enough to produce a group capable of supporting a Super Bowl run?
The responsible answer is, we don’t know. Time and discernment are real obstacles to the desire to render immediate judgments in these matters. The instant reassurance that we impatiently seek and are so irresponsibly promised in this acquisition phase of the football year is never satisfied, and can’t be, leading to a number of predictable reactions – over commitment, unwarranted pessimism or unwarranted optimism. “I am not quite as cavalier about the secondary. Can they go from getting carved up like swiss cheese by Brady to a Super Bowl-capable secondary in one off season?” [comment by Hombre de Acero to Ivan.]
If there was any justice in this world, talent pundits like Mel Kiper Jr. would be audited every fourth year after their various predictions and assertions. It is an accepted article of faith in these and other parts that it takes at least three to four years to properly evaluate a draft, yet the sports punditry is never subjected to that type of evaluation. This is probably one of the factors that leads some fans into various cul de sacs of arrogance, believing, among other things, that with passion, some time on your hands, and some access to some game tape, you too can be a crackerjack talent evaluator.
Ignoring, for example, the admonishments of know-nothings like the late Bill Nunn, that seeing certain players in person is a necessary difference than in just reviewing tape. This may be why teams employ armies of scouts.
Yet we are to believe that Kiper and Company, and perhaps you and me too, can circumvent all of that and democratize the process. Over commitment is one of the ways that our lack of understanding, or faith, in time and patience plays out.
Using our previous experience with offensive linemen as a guide, the strategy is selling out and throwing everything you can get your hands on at the wall until something sticks. The Steelers have committed four draft picks in two years, including a 1st, 2nd and 3rd to defensive backs.
For many this is not nearly enough. They didn’t trade up for better bodies, or down for more, made one middling free agent acquisitions, or (and for some this is not hyperbole) did not devote each and every draft pick to the defensive secondary. Forget about other needs. Like, for instance, how the secondary wasn’t addressed when we were on the make for offensive linemen.
Often, we are annoyed because the team didn’t pick someone whom we were sweet on. Again, what could those scouts, whose mortgages are dependent upon their discernment, possibly know that me and Mel Kiper don’t?
For established players, this is the Dan Snyder approach. If Pittsburgh didn’t go after Malcolm Butler how serious can they possibly be? And if the pundits aren’t touting them at the top of their boards…? This brings us to fan discernment…or hysteria in some cases.
Remember when fans wrote off Marcus Gilbert when it seemed that all he could do is knock his teammates out of games, and Kelvin Beachum when he had a less than stellar first training camp? More recently, and targeted, folks had their doubts about Artie Burns when he was drafted and Sean Davis throughout the first half of last season. Now we have two draft picks, that, truth be told no one, or more importantly Mel, hasn’t seemed to have heard of, so for some, expectations are already low.
Pessimism can develop its own momentum. Golson is a bust. Ross Cockrell has no upside to exploit. Coty Sensabaugh. Who ever heard of him? So, for some the fear is that the Steelers have done nothing of significance to address their secondary issues, or not enough.
Now all the possibilities just mentioned could be true, or none of them. It can hard to trust what fans think these days. Some of this can be placed at the feet of the sports entertainment culture, the rest on the general downside of social media. There have always been inane ideas that have been floated by fans. In the old days, most of those things didn’t travel far beyond a bar stool in Munhall. But today, it can go global in nanoseconds.
As barflies, middle school GMs and other addled individuals who have become emboldened because they might have thought they were crazy, but now have discovered that out of seven billion souls they have found others who agree with them (Writers note: That doesn’t make you sane, it just means you are, unfortunately for humanity, not alone.) This silliness has now gone viral and reached the eyes of Hombre in Argentina, who is traumatized and feels compelled to respond. And therefore, we have ongoing discussions concerning whether Ryan Shazier is a safety trapped in a linebacker’s body…or is it the other way around?
Let’s consider the controversy surrounding wide receiver and tight end. Some would say that the loss in the Conference Championship game had more to do with the inadequacies in the receiver corps rather than the secondary. And with Markus Wheaton gone, and Martavis Bryant skating on very thin ice, the possibility that Super Bowl hopes will depend upon Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton and the mangled fingers of Sammie Coates would be concerning to some. Yet, the drafting of JuJu Smith-Schuster is viewed by many as an unjustified indulgence.
Many of the same folk are stressing over the lack of an investment in a tight end. This is somewhat understandable. Last season fans were faced with the loss of both Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, with the designated replacement, Ladarius Green, injured through most of the season, and his future uncertain. On the other hand, tight end was one aspect of the team that performed at or above expectations. Green, when available, didn’t disappoint. Jesse James and Xavier Grimble both grew beyond expectation. David Johnson has always been an underrated, underappreciated contributor. Even if the worst-case scenario plays out with Green, the position is hardly in crisis.