All offseason the Pittsburgh Steelers thought they’d get a break and not have to face superstar quarterback Tom Brady, but instead matchup against backup Jimmy Garoppolo in the season opener against the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
Sure, the Steelers would be without running back Le’Veon Bell, but who wouldn’t make that trade?
Then Deflategate blew up on the NFL, Brady’s suspension was vacated, and promising Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant was suspended along with Bell for Thursday's night game for violations of the league's policy on substance abuse.
But while Steelers fans are thinking about how the NFL suspension momentum turned against them (New England running back LeGarrette Blount, in the same car as Bell when the two were arrested last preseason when both played for the Steelers, also is suspended, but who cares?) there’s something more pressing.
Just a few hours before the Steelers play the defending Super Bowl champions, and fans still don’t know who Mike Tomlin is going to play in the defensive backfield.
Pittsburgh’s defensive backs were awful in the preseason, allowing more points (122) and more completions (112) than any other team in the NFL. Granted, those stats are inflated by the fact the Steelers played five preseason games whereas 30 other teams played only four, but overall Pittsburgh ranked just 25th in pass defense in the NFL in the preseason, and no team allowed quarterbacks a higher passing rating than the Steelers this summer (108.1).
Not only is future Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu gone, but none of the three defensive backs drafted by the Steelers in 2015 made the active roster for the season opener.
The Steelers' depth chart lists Cortez Allen and William Gay as the cornerbacks and Mike Mitchell and Shamarko Thomas as the safeties, though talk is former Miami safety Will Allen will start instead of Thomas. Brandon Boykin, formerly Philadelphia’s nickel back, is slotted in that role in this game but one wonders if he might not eventually beat out the inconsistent Cortez Allen at right corner.
In order to beat New England, the Steelers must jam the Patriot wide receivers’ pass routes. Brady generally takes short drops when passing to make quick hits. The Steelers’ new Cover 2 scheme is designed for cornerbacks to jump the routes and make “splash plays,” the term that has replaced “It is what it is” and “obviously” as the favorite phrase in Tomlin’s lexicon for interceptions and other big defensive plays.
Which is why second-round draft choice Senquez Golson’s spot on injured reserve is so costly. Golson led the SEC in interceptions with 10 in 2014. Take away Boykin’s six interceptions two years ago in Philadelphia, and no current Steelers cornerback has ever intercepted more than three passes in a professional season.
In lieu of picks, there’s the coverage, the disruption of routes. It’s imperative Pittsburgh’s defensive backs wreck havoc with New England’s pass routes.
If they don’t, need we remind you the Steelers ranked only 26th in the NFL last season with 33 sacks? Or that New England put up 55 points against the Steelers, the most ever allowed in franchise history, the last time the two teams played?
Suddenly, the reasoning for signing running back DeAngelo Williams becomes clearer. Williams is like backup quarterback Michael Vick, a veteran representing the perceived best available option in relief for Pittsburgh.
Williams will allow the Steelers to attempt to beat the Patriots like they did in 2011, when Pittsburgh enjoyed nearly a 2-to-1 time of possession advantage against New England.
The thing is, does anyone really think the best bet for a Pittsburgh victory tonight is taking the ball out of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s hands?
— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson has been a contributor to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 15 years. He has covered the Steelers, Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.