I posed the question following recently just what exactly rookie defensive back Sean Davis’ role is going to be going forward for the 2016 season within the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense. Sunday’s game at least provided some short-term answers and insight into that question, and the answer seems to be that there isn’t much of a role for him in the starting lineup short of injuries.
And when I say the starting lineup, I am including all of the Steelers’ variations of sub-packages, including the dime and quarter defenses that feature six defensive backs. After playing most of the season as the team’s fifth defensive back, he did not get on the field at all on Sunday, even when there were injuries in the secondary at safety.
When starting safety Mike Mitchell briefly left the game with a knee injury, coming off the field for eight snaps, it was not Davis, but rather first-year safety Jordan Dangerfield, who took his place. Dangerfield of course field in at Robert Golden’s starting safety spot in the starting lineup for two games.
But Davis was also dealing with an injury of his own at that time, so it wasn’t entirely clear that Dangerfield was simply the ‘next man up’. And in fact, at that point, he may not have been, but his play when he did get on the field showed him to be the better option.
Davis did not play at all on defense in that first game that Dangerfield started, and was limited to just one snap on special teams, which was necessitated, late in the game, by an in-game injury. The following week, he actually played extensively, in the slot and in a safety role depending on the sub-package, but, as mentioned, he did not log any time at all on Sunday on defense, though he did see 12 snaps on special teams.
The reason for this is partly because the Steelers chose to promote rookie first-round cornerback Artie Burns to the role of the primary nickel back, and Sunday was his first game in that role for non-injury reasons. He has what even his head coach described as a “spotty” showing, but he is likely to remain there for now. Or at least more likely than to lose his spot to Davis.
Because another factor in this equation is getting William Gay into the slot, where he is experienced, and where he acts as a key communication hub in the defense. It is asking too much to rely upon a rookie safety with marginal, and marginally successful, cornerback experience to step into that increasingly important role.
What remains to be seen is if Davis’ role evolves again over the course of the season, or if he is simply going to be resigned to special teams work for the remainder of his rookie year, barring injuries, in which case he now appears to be second in line at safety.