Fixing the Steelers pass rush fixes the secondary
There is a growing narrative in the NFL draft world that the Pittsburgh Steelers are minus a true No. 1 cornerback and the team needs to use its first-round pick on a player to upgrade the secondary.
Pittsburgh’s current cornerback roster is as follows:
Cameron Sutton (UFA)
James Pierre (RFA)
William Jackson III
At this point we can being to make some guesses about this group going forward. Ahkello Witherspoon and William Jackson III are both being paid far too much to stay on the roster in 2023 at the current cap number. So if we assume both guys are released, we can also safety assume Cameron Sutton will be re-signed along with James Pierre.
Is a top four of Sutton, Wallace, Maulet and Pierre the best secondary in the NFL? Hardly. But when you add in safety Minkah Fitzpatrick this group is better. However, there is one more thing the team can do to really improve this group and it has nothing to do with drafting a cornerback.
It’s fixing the pass rush. The Steelers could only muster 40 sacks in 2022 and were No. 18 in the league in pass rush win rate at only 40 percent. The last time the Steelers only mustered 40 sacks was all the way back in 1981. And the last time the Steelers didn’t top 50 sacks in a season was 2016.
This isn’t a chicken or egg debate. An elite pass rush can mask an average secondary but even the best secondary cannot overcome an average pass rush. When outside linebacker T.J. Watt went down with a torn pectoral, the entire defense crumbled. If there is an area where the Steelers should focus this offseason, it is there. Building a defense that is elite with Watt on the field but doesn’t rely so heavily on him it cannot function otherwise.
For this to happen, the Steelers need to do two things. First, get a reliable, productive third edge rusher to work in with Watt and Alex Highsmith. Second, there must be an improvement at inside linebacker in terms of coverage. Everyone is worried about how ineffective the cornerbacks were but every Steelers inside linebacker who played meaningful snaps last season allowed a quarterback rating above 100 when targeted in coverage.
Elite defenses stop the run and rush the passer. Everything else falls into place. Fix the pass rush and the problems in the secondary fix themselves. Change my mind.
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