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.