By Matthew Marczi
Josh Victorian entered this edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ training camp likely still on the roster bubble; however, with the recent injuries to Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown, DeMarcus Van Dyke, and Terry Hawthorne, the young cornerback has been given the opportunity to garner some much-needed experience, playing the slot with the ones in between Ike Taylor and William Gay.
Indeed, Victorian at this point may even be in the driver’s seat for a roster spot after spending most of his first two seasons (including last year with the Steelers) on the practice squad. Things have come a long way since he joined the team as an injury replacement for Terry Carter in the early stages of the 2012 edition of training camp.
A former cornerback for Louisiana Tech, Victorian intercepted five passes and deflected 23 others in his final two seasons at the school. He signed on as an undrafted free agent with the Baltimore Ravens late in July of 2011, but did not make the final roster. He spent the rest of the season on and off the practice squad of the New England Patriots.
The following year, he was signed to a futures contract with the New Orleans Saints before signing up for the arena league, until the Steelers picked him up by necessity due to injury on August 3rd.
This year, the Steelers have already brought in four new cornerbacks post-draft due to injury. After Justin King was injured, they signed Nigel Malone, who was subsequently released in favor of Ryan Steed. A day later, the team claimed Buddy Jackson off of waivers, and now Devin Smith has joined the fray as well. Many of them should see extensive playing time this week after the starters leave the game.
Victorian, however, should see plenty of action, and will likely slide over to one of the outside slots after the starters leave, as he did last season during the preseason, where he was able to stick out by picking off one pass and nearly coming down with a couple of others.
One of the most appealing assets that Victorian has shown thus far in his young career has been, of course, his ability to stay healthy. It was his ability to stay healthy that afforded him the opportunity to even enter training camp last season, and it is keeping him in the competition for a roster spot now while a good chunk of his fellow defensive backs are icing their ankles and knees.
The other thing to like about Victorian is that he plays with confidence and aggressiveness—another trait that helped him stick out last preseason, which got him a spot on the practice squad over seventh round draft pick Terrence Frederick and others a year ago.
One of the main areas of his game that is lacking, however, is something that he can’t do a thing about, and that is his height. Standing at just 5’10”, only Gay comes close in size among corners at the top half of the depth chart, most of whom crack six feet.
I am of the opinion that his height is a detriment to his abilities, because in addition to being small, he also plays small. It did not help that when he was called up from the practice squad last year, his first two assignments were against teams with taller than average receivers in the form of the Dallas Cowboys and the San Diego Chargers.
Against the Chargers, Victorian was inserted after Curtis Brown got yanked, and it was not before long that he was beaten for a 15-yard touchdown by the 6’5” Danario Alexander that he was in fair position to defend were it not for his size. He played all of five snaps, being targeted twice.
The following week, Victorian was forced to start against Dallas—one week removed from the practice squad—going up against Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, both of whom have five inches on him. He was targeted eight times in the loss, yielding six receptions for 73 yards. What’s worse, however, he whiffed on a number of tackle attempts.
Victorian was also forced into heavy duty in the season finale after Keenan Lewis left the game, and he once again was tasked primarily against a tall receiver, this time Josh Gordon, who frequently used his body against the comparative homunculus. He ended up giving up four receptions on five targets, and his one pass deflection came on a poorly thrown ball three feet away from the receiver. He also had a tough day against the run to boot.
Victorian’s stature precludes him from having consistent success going up against tall receivers. He is better suited to going up against a team like, say, the Steelers, whose receivers are more his height and allow him to use his man coverage skills.
However, Victorian lacks not in intangibles. He has the makeup of a football player, combining desire, willingness, determination, aggressiveness, and confidence with a short memory for successes and failures.
Indeed, he is not short on aggression or confidence, frequently willing to engage in man coverage on receivers a head’s length taller than he is just a play after he’d been beaten, and do so with the same intensity as the play before. That surely was the difference for head coach Mike Tomlin in anointing him with a spot on the practice squad a year ago.
Tomlin was asked about what he is looking for in the rookies during the preseason games after practice on Wednesday, and he said that he wants to see “how they deal with the failures. When you get in a stadium that’s one of the things we don’t know about these guys at this point”. Victorian certainly fit the bill in that regard. He went on:
“Do they wear failures, or are they capable of moving on? Do they stack negative play on top of negative play, or are they capable of moving past it? That’s one of the critical things you don’t know about young guys until you get in stadiums and probably one of the things we’re eagerly awaiting in regards to some of them”.
Victorian has already shown that he has the intangibles to be a football player in the NFL. Now he needs to show that he has the skill to compete on a consistent basis in spite of his short stature. He got a taste of life in the NFL last season, and it’s up to him to demonstrate that he has used those experiences to grow into a player the team can rely on.