Steelers cornerbacks corps gets near-complete overhaul


Steelers cornerbacks are well aware of the team’s passing defense statistics from last season.

Even if few of them were here when those statistics were compiled.

Steelers opponents averaged 271.9 passing yards per game in 2015, third worst in the NFL. The Steelers were one of two teams that ranked below 20th in that category that qualified for the playoffs.

“You understand that we gave up a lot of yards last year,” cornerback Ross Cockrell said, “so we’re going to improve upon that as best we can.

“One thing we know, to be a good defense, you can’t just let people go up and down the field on you, especially through the air.”

That happened far too often last season — even if, because of a dynamic offense, the Steelers many times were able to overcome it and finish 10-6. Opposing quarterbacks topped 300 passing yards in seven of their final 12 games of the season.

Partially as a result, the Steelers revamped their cornerbacks corps over the offseason. Circumstance aided that endeavor: three of their top four cornerbacks at the end of the season were unrestricted free agents, and another player who missed the 2015 season is back from injury.

The Steelers group of cornerbacks they’re using for the ongoing three weeks of organized team activities barely resembles the unit that was taking part in training camp at St. Vincent College last August.

Of the seven cornerbacks on the roster, just two were on the roster for the Steelers’ final preseason game in 2015: William Gay and Doran Grant. Gay is the lone carryover from the top four at the position on the depth chart from the latter stages of this past preseason.

“It’s definitely a different feeling,” Cockrell said of his position group. “That’s the nature of the business, though.

“I learned a lot from (departed safety) Will Allen and Cortez Allen and from Antwon Blake, and I wish them the best of luck with the rest of their careers. But we’re focused on this season. … With all our youth, it’s really exciting. We’ve got a lot of young guys that are just ready to go after the football.”

That is what the Steelers are trying to mold their secondary’s identity into: a playmaking, ball-hawking unit. The turnaround began last season when the Steelers finished tied for sixth in the NFL with 17 interceptions.

Youngsters Senquez Golson (a second-round pick 13 months ago who missed last season because of shoulder surgery) and Artie Burns (this year’s first-round pick) infuse talented new blood into the cornerback position.

Golson, in particular, is intriguing because both he and coach Mike Tomlin have repeatedly remarked that Golson should be considered a second-year player, rather than a rookie. It affects the 2016 roster: an advanced second-round pick in addition to a first-round pick in Burns are immediately added.

“I don’t feel like a rookie,” said Golson, who appears somewhat bulked up and said he is at least 10 pounds heavier than his listed 176-pound playing weight.

“(Last year was spent) learning communication, watching other players and learning how they talk.”

Much of the offseason chatter about the Steelers has been about their refurbished cornerbacks corps.

“Just as a group … we want to do better than last year,” Gay said.



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