By Jeremy Hritz
The cornerback position is in a bit of transition this year, as fan favorite Joe Haden is gone, and has been replaced by Ahkello Witherspoon on the left side. Witherspoon showed a great deal of promise towards the end of last season with his athleticism and ability to make plays on the football. In his limited action, he appeared to be the ball hawking corner the team has been searching for; however, whether or not he can do it for an entire season, in addition to holding up against the physicalities of stopping the run, remains to be seen.
Opposite Witherspoon on the right side will be Cameron Sutton, entering his second year as starter. Last season, Sutton’s performance was serviceable, but he will need to make a jump if the secondary is to improve. Too many times last season, Sutton allowed receivers to get behind him, resulting in chunk pass plays, and that just cannot happen in 2022. Sutton is better suited for the slot position, and there is the possibility that he flip/flips with newly signed Levi Wallace in specific sub-packages on defense to give opponents unique looks.
Wallace will serve as Sutton’s backup, and will get a solid amount of playing time this season, as he was effective during his tenure in Buffalo. He is smart, assignment-sound, physical corner who lacks elite speed and athleticism, but can make plays. If put in the right position, he can be an uplift for the secondary.
Backing up Witherspoon is James Pierre, who plays his best football in short spaces, a la the red area, but when forced to defend large chunks of the field, is susceptible to getting beat deep. The Steelers need Witherspoon to stay healthy, because if Pierre is the starter for any period of time, the defense will get exploited.
Finally, Arthur Maulet returns for his second season with the Steelers as the nickel, and brings intensity and his best Mike Hilton impersonation to the position. He’s not a spitting image of the former Steeler, but the coaching staff continues to try and force him into that mold.
Overall, cornerback is a questionable position for the Steelers, and its success will be dependent on the growth of Sutton and how Witherspoon handles his first year as a starter. Lots of boom or bust potential for this unit.
Steelers in Safe Hands at Safety
As unknown of a commodity as the cornerbacks are, the Steelers safety position is strong. There is something to be said for talent, but also when players have played together for an extended period of time, there is camaraderie, quality communication, and intuition that grows from such longevity. And that is the case for starters Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds.
Fitzpatrick, who signed a massive contract this offseason, is one of the most dynamic safeties in the NFL, who has playmaking talent, but he showed last season that he can also play a physical brand of football, as he led the defense in tackles, having to serve as the last line of support too often as a result of the sieve defensive line. It seems that new defensive coordinator, Teryl Austin, is scheming to free up Fitzpatrick to play the safety position more like Troy Polamalu, where he has greater freedom to create and make plays. Fitzpatrick is primed for what could be his best year, and I would not be surprised at all if he is in the running for Defensive Player of the Year come season’s end.
Edmunds nearly didn’t return with the team, but at the last minute, he was offered a modest contract that he accepted, keeping intact the Steelers safety tandem for another year. For all the athleticism that Fitzpatrick possesses, Edmunds does not have it, but what he does have is fearlessness and a thumper-mentality. An effort to play Edmunds closer to the line of scrimmage as more of a hybrid linebacker was evident this preseason, and this may carry over into the regular season to take advantage of his strengths. Edmunds had his best season in 2021, and if the coaching staff makes an effort to take advantage of his strengths, his play could be even better this season.
Backing up Fitzpatrick will be second year player Tre Norwood who is versatile and did some impressive things as a rookie. Not the fastest player, Norwood is intelligent and in the right place at the right time, but he can be taken advantage of by speed. Behind Edmunds will be team captain, Miles Killebrew who may be the teams best special teamer, and also fits the mold of a hybrid safety/linebacker.
It is also worth mentioning that Damontae Kazee was placed on the short-term injury reserve, and will return to the team at some point. Kazee was being utilized in a 3-safety package for the defense, which unfettered Fitzpatrick in the backend, and this will certainly come into play once he returns around week 4 or 5.