Continuing our series looking at the biggest storylines by position group as the Steelers prepare for training camp at the end of the month. In this entry, we’ll look at the cornerback and safeties.
Cornerback: What’s Patrick Peterson’s primary role?
The cornerback room may be the most interesting group to me right now, just because there are so many options and possibilities. Peterson’s role is likely going to be the biggest determining factor for questions like how much Joey Porter Jr. will play early and who the team’s slot corner is, so that makes it the biggest storyline to me.
When Peterson signed, he was expected to start on the outside and play alongside Levi Wallace. Then the draft came, and Joey Porter Jr. and Cory Trice Jr. were drafted while Chandon Sullivan replaced Arthur Maulet as the team’s main slot option. Throughout minicamp and OTAs, Trice and Porter got rave reviews while there were more and more rumblings about Peterson as a potential slot corner option.
While Peterson believes that Sullivan, his former teammate in Minnesota, is going to fare just fine, the slot corner position is probably Pittsburgh’s weakest spot on paper. Moving Peterson, an incredibly high IQ veteran, to the slot would be an interesting move, as it not only gives Pittsburgh a more reliable option but it opens up playing time on the outside for Porter to play immediately.
There’s no doubt Porter will see the field, but if Peterson stays primarily on the outside, then Porter is still behind Peterson and Levi Wallace on the corner depth chart, limiting just how many snaps he’ll see. Obviously, if he plays well he could pass Wallace or Peterson and play a lot more, but in this scenario, he’ll likely be the team’s third corner, at least early in the season.
There’s also the question of how Peterson is going to play, given that he’s entering his age-33 season and coming from a zone-heavy scheme to a Steelers defense that played more man last year. I tend to think that guys as smart as Peterson who have been around the league and have a history of success figure it out more often than not, so at least for the span of his two-year contract, I don’t have any huge concerns. Still, it’s valid to question whether Peterson will play like a true top corner.
Luckily for us, we’ll get our answer rather quickly to how this plays out. We should know early on in the season what Peterson, Porter and the rest of the cornerback’s roles are, and while it can obviously change as the season progresses, I’m definitely curious to see how things shake out for Week 1.
Safety: Will the Damontae Kazee/Keanu Neal pairing do enough to replace Terrell Edmunds?
Terrell Edmunds finally got some love from Steelers fans last season, but he was a guy who improved every single year and was as reliable as anyone. But one thing he didn’t do all that well was pick off passes, as he really didn’t have the best hands.
Pittsburgh looked to mitigate that problem last season by signing Kazee, a former NFL interception leader to get some looks and work within a safety rotation. While he battled an injury that sidelined him for the first half of the season, Kazee picked off two passes and then re-signed with the Steelers this offseason while Edmunds joined the Philadelphia Eagles. To replace some of the stuff Edmunds did in the box, the Steelers brought in former first-round pick Keanu Neal, who’s also played linebacker in his career.
I’m actually really looking forward to watching the two of them work alongside Minkah Fitzpatrick. I envision the Steelers looking to play Neal as a box safety and occasional dime backer, especially with how poor the team’s off-ball linebackers are in coverage, but he’s a guy who loves to hit and will be fun to watch fly around the field. Kazee’s ball skills are something the Steelers lacked with Edmunds, and it wouldn’t be shocking if he combined with Minkah Fitzpatrick to get 9+ interceptions as a safety pairing.
Edmunds will be missed, particularly as a leader, but I do think that Kazee and Neal can replicate or exceed his production on the field. As long as both of them stay healthy, the Steelers’ safeties should have a strong year.