Versatile Safeties May Open Up A Roster Spot For Steelers At Another Position

By Matthew Marczi

The Pittsburgh Steelers enter the 2013 season with untested depth at the safety position after both primary reserves—Ryan Mundy and Will Allen—departed in free agency this spring. Of the three primary candidates to apprentice behind the starters this season, only second-year player Robert Golden has in-game regular season experience on defense.

Golden, who joined the team as an undrafted free agent a year ago, helped his cause as a longshot to make the team because of his versatility, having been a cornerback in college transitioning to the safety position.

Thus, his position was assured as a swingman in the secondary, possessing the ability to play the slot if needed, which he did last season after a rash of injuries resulted in him being the next man up at cornerback.

This year, the Steelers drafted yet another versatile safety that is certain to make the roster: Shamarko Thomas. The team liked his potential so much, despite his height, that they traded their 2014 draft pick in the third round to select him in the fourth round this year.

Part of what sold defensive backs coach Carnell Lake and others on Thomas was his ability to play the slot and cover receivers man to man. It is a skill in which he excelled at the college level, and the Steelers are already grooming him to use that ability on the professional level, as evidenced by the number of snaps that he took from the slot in the first preseason game.

With two reserve safeties demonstrating the aptitude to also play cornerback, it gives the Steelers the opportunity to save a roster spot that can be used to retain a promising player at another position, such as wide receiver, linebacker, or defensive end.

Or perhaps it will offer the team the ability to carry four tight ends while some of their numbers at the position work their way back from injury. Heath Miller and David Johnson remain on the Physically Unable to Perform list, but Miller especially has a chance of being activated for the regular season, even if he is unable to play initially. The team also must decide how to approach Matt Spaeth’s foot injury, which promises a long recovery.

In recent years, the Steelers have typically carried 10 defensive backs in total, generally splitting the numbers between six cornerbacks and four safeties. Last year, for example, the team had Ike Taylor, Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown, DeMarcus Van Dyke, Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Mundy, Allen, and Golden. The year before, Van Dyke and Golden were replaced with William Gay and Bryant McFadden. Before Allen and Brown were drafted, the Steelers had Crezdon Butler and Anthony Madison at cornerback.

Given that the secondary is a unit in which you ever-increasingly play five and six men at a time, teams are more and more inclined to carry 10 or more defensive backs. This may be the year in which the Steelers buck that trend, however, due to the versatility of their young safeties.

Having Golden and Thomas in a dual safety-nickel role affords the Steelers the opportunity to carry as little as four cornerbacks if they so choose, those being, in all likelihood, Taylor, Allen, Gay, and Brown.

Van Dyke has been a complete non-factor during training camp due to a hamstring injury that is seriously jeopardizing his chances of making the roster. Rookie Terry Hawthorne has just returned from a knee issue of his own, and is slowly working his way back. Josh Victorian and Isaiah Green are both promising young corners, though their height is not ideal.

Other than Van Dyke, however, these cornerbacks retain practice squad eligibility. There seems to be no reason or need to carry more than one of these four cornerbacks, if any, on the 53-man roster when the Steelers can stash two of them—say, Hawthorne and Victorian—on the practice squad should injuries hit the position as they did last year.

Let us also not rule out the possibility that the Steelers elect to carry safety DaMon Cromartie-Smith, despite the fact that he did himself no favors in his do-or-die camp by allowing a punt block in the first preseason game. Cromartie-Smith is a veteran of the system, having spent years on the practice squad already, and offers size from the safety position that the team simply does not have elsewhere.

Of course, the question of a battle between a fifth safety versus a fifth corner could be moot should the Steelers decide to carry 10 defensive backs anyway. In this season, with interesting players and needs at other positions, however, I see no need for a tenth man in the secondary, thanks to the versatility of the backup safeties.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • StarSpangledSteeler

    I believe the Steelers will stick with their standard roster formula. 25 offense. 25 defense. 3 special teams.

    If we do save a spot with the Golden and Thomas versatility factor, I believe it will be spent in the LB core.

  • frednash

    maybe 24 defense

    4 specialist


  • Brendon Glad

    Good article. I agree. Very happy that the safety positions have been addressed, while the 2 great safeties we currently have are still available to “teach them the ropes”. Hopefully should provide for a smooth transition when Troy P. and Ryan C. decide to hang-em up.
    A concept which the Steelers are the BEST in the NFL at doing, in my opinion…even though probably biased 🙂

  • Alexander Sebastian Heath

    Other thing to look into is keeping 25 defensive men, just 9 Defensive backs and more linebackers as linebackers have tendencies of being better special team players. 9 defensive backs. 7 defensive linemen. 9 linebackers. Works for me.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Agreed about having these safeties now while they can still learn under the starters. The fact that Polamalu also has a lot of experience playing the slot in LeBeau’s system, and has shown a willingness to be a teacher to them, will only further benefit Golden and Thomas, and the defense and team as a whole.

  • cencalsteeler

    Having a plethora of multi positional athletes is a smart move by the coaching staff. Chalk it up as a lesson learned from last seasons depleted positions due to injuries. There is no reason these athletes shouldn’t be asked to have a little knowledge and training in a secondary position.

  • Intropy

    At this point I wouldn’t be too surprised to see Van Dyke held until final cuts and then IRed. Unless… I can’t remember is he still PUP eligible?

  • SteelersDepot

    no he isnt

  • Brendon Glad

    The complete contrast of them (Clark and Polamalu)…SHOULD make for a “really good learn”…by all parties involved. You get the football technician x’s and o’s guy in Clark…and the instinct-feel-guy in Polamalu. Both of them obviously carry both traits, or they wouldn’t be so excellent…but they DO tend toward completely opposite ways of thinking. Thomas and Golden, and anyone else in the mix should greatly benefit from the breadth-and-depth of their acumen in how to play Steelers Safety.

  • Joe Bu

    Good article and I agree with liking the position flexibility. However, if the defense is supposedly too complex for LeBeau to trust playing 1st and 2nd year players, except for injury emergency – then how would these guys trying to learn 2 positions be feasible in the first couple of years ?

  • dgh57

    Also, they can learn from Woodson and Lake two guys that were pretty darn good at their respective positions back in their playing days! Certainly no lack of great teachers to learn from in the Steelers organization if you’re a DB!

  • Brendon Glad

    Amen to that! I only watch the games one time, but my eyeball test said that the secondary was noticeably improved under Lake despite the lack of takeaways. In general, (from my amateur, but still attentive perspective), passes thrown were far more highly contested than in some seasons…ya know?
    Hard to explain in type, but our defense generally concedes the 7 yard out during the more exotic coverages. Leaving their corners on islands with the warning “NOTHING over your head”.
    During some seasons, say the Chad Scott or Deon Figures stints or the William Gay year before Carnell…those throws were easy completions. Sometimes up to 6-10 times per game.
    Last year, those throws were HOTLY contested…often ended up with the DB making contact on the WR milliseconds after the ball arrived…and I was very impressed with that.
    I also thought Keenan Lewis was atrocious during all seasons before Lake. And last year he was VERY solid. Lewis deserves most of the credit…but one has to think Lake taught him something, because the improvement was DRASTIC.
    Rod as coaching intern can’t hurt either. Like I said above on Troy and Ryan…I think Lake and Woodson used their brains in entirely different ways on the field. So all DB’s should benefit greatly from their presence, like you said.

  • Shannon Stephenson

    I just cannot see us only having 4 CB’s. The logic makes sense behind your comments I believe 5 is automatic and that 6 is a question.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Sub-packages are watered down with clear, specific assignments. Rookies always get playing time (some more than others), it’s just in simplified form. I think Jarvis Jones will see over 100 snaps this year, for example. Timmons and Woodley played a lot as a rookie, Cortez Allen played as a rookie. Hood and Heyward played. They should be able to contribute more in year two though, if not start. Polamalu and Woodley were starters by year two, and Allen was the nickel. Timmons was probably ready to start but Foote was in his way. Golden seems like he knows what he’s doing by now, so I’m not too worried, but I don’t expect Shamarko to be more than the sixth DB too often when he does get some snaps every now and then in the Big Nickel.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Personally, I think they carry five, as they did last year (although their final 53 included only 4 before adding Van Dyke after DeCastro was placed on IR). It does give them the option to carry four, though, if they want to carry Cromartie-Smith for his experience/special teams but only want to carry 9 DBs.

  • dgh57

    I agree, I remember our pass defense being kinda average there for sometime. Before Lake we never had a #1 ranked defense as we have the last couple of years. Because of the coaching they have players like Van Dyke and Hawthorn can possibly turn out to be very good DBs.
    We should also not forget about Coach Lebeau as he was a DB back in his playing days as someone else to learn from. I wonder if Taylor is getting tips on how to use his hands better to get INTs from Woodson or not as he was a INT getting machine back in his playing days?

  • joed32

    #1 in 2008.

  • Ahmad

    I have to agree that at this point I don’t see the Steelers keeping 10 DBs. The extra one or two roster spots can be used to keep an extra TE until Miller is healthy and/or to keep an extra LB. The IlB played extremely well in the first game and I think its gonna be hard to sneak any on the PS at this point.

  • StarSpangledSteeler

    I count Warren, Suisham, Butler, as the 3 special team “specialists”. The other guys on special teams should have actual position spots on the offense or defense.

    I love Dunn’s return ability but with the new kick off changes, most of those kick offs go out of the end zone, so you lose half the production there. That generally just leaves punts.

    Dunn is not known for having great hands, so I don’t know if Tomlin trusts him with punts. But even if he did. A lot of those are fair catches. So you’re maybe only getting 2 chances a game to actually return a kick. (whereas in past years you may get 6).

    Unfortunately it’s very hard to justify kicking off a WR like J. Brown or TE/OL depth just to keep a guy who returns twice a game. He would have to be extremely elite (like Devin Hester). In which case he would probably be a starting WR or CB. As of now I don’t think Dunn has shown that but we’ll see…

  • StarSpangledSteeler

    Yeah, that’s what I was saying. If your safeties are CB/S versatile you may not have to keep so many. And that leaves an extra spot for a young LB (who I generally prefer on special teams over DBs).

    If it were me, I’d keep 5 ILB and 4 OLB this year.

  • Frank

    There’s no way I can see them keeping only 4 CBs, even if Golden & Shamarko can play the slot. Of the 4 CBs in this theory, Ike, Allen, Gay & C.Brown, only 3 are real outside guys, Gay doesn’t have the deep speed, see V.Cruz play last week. C.Brown has been burned a lot so far in his young career, so if Ike or Allen go down, not good. I think they need that 5th CB, & also someone worried about losing T.Hawthorne, I doubt it, he’ll go on the practice squad. No team is going to sign an injured CB to their 53 man roster.

  • dgh57

    Yes, I forgot about 2008 so you are correct on that. Seems like I remember us falling to the middle of the pack in 2009 though.