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Joey Porter Jr. is the medicine the Steelers need to cure their ailing secondary

Joey Porter Jr. had a suggestion for Mike Tomlin and the Steelers defensive staff heading into their matchup with the Tennessee Titans on Thursday night:

Give me DeAndre Hopkins.

It was a bold request for a player who had made just one previous start in his NFL career. Hopkins, the perennial Pro Bowler, is not the receiver he was a few years ago, but he’s still capable of turning in games like the one he had in Week 5, when he caught eight passes for 140 yards against the Indianapolis Colts. It would have been understandable if Tomlin had politely rebuffed Porter. He could have told the rookie he admired his ambition but that a one-on-one against Hopkins wasn’t something the young pup was ready for just yet.

Only he was.

Tomlin granted Porter his wish, and Porter rewarded him by turning in a stellar performance. Per Next Gen stats, Porter lined up against Hopkins on 26 of the 36 routes Hopkins ran, with 20 of those in press coverage. Hopkins caught just one pass for 17 yards on five targets while Porter was his primary defender. Crucially, he did not catch a single pass in the second half. Porter covered Hopkins so well, in fact, that the veteran receiver was not even targeted on Tennessee’s final possession, when they attempted to drive the field for a winning touchdown after Pittsburgh had scored with four minutes remaining to take a 20-16 lead. That drive ended on a Kwon Alexander interception at the goal line in the final seconds, as the Steelers secured their fifth victory in eight games this season.

Can anyone say, “shut down corner?”

The Steelers have not had one of those in a long time. You’d have to go back to Ike Taylor in his prime to find a guy who could take out the opposition’s best pass catcher. That was fifteen years ago. And, while Taylor was good, he was never an elite corner. The last Steeler to fit that category was Rod Woodson, whose career in Pittsburgh ended nearly 30 years ago. It’s far too early to speak of Porter in the same terms as Woodson. But the potential is there. So, too, is the confidence.

Porter told reporters after the game the coaching staff was hesitant when he first suggested he cover Hopkins. But his persistence paid off, and by game time they’d bought in. “I went to Coach T,” Porter said, “and told him, ‘I want 10 (Hopkins).’ That’s what I was looking for. I don’t really hide from nothing. I said, ‘That’s the matchup I want, that’s the matchup I need.'”

Porter’s physicality was an important reason he had success versus Hopkins. You can see him in the clip below to the right of the screen get his hands on Hopkins at the snap and use that to establish great position, even as Hopkins breaks away from Porter’s leverage:

To Porter’s credit, he reserved most of his contact to the legal five-yard zone from the line of scrimmage. And, to the credit of the referees, they didn’t over-officiate the ticky-tack stuff down the field. Hopkins grew frustrated with the lack of separation he was able to create and began to initiate contact to get away from Porter. At that point, Porter was in his head, and Hopkins resorted to appealing to the refs for calls:

Porter’s patience at the line of scrimmage is another reason for his coverage success. He does a great job resisting the receiver’s initial movement, which is often a bluff move designed to displace a defender. If a receiver wants to go inside, for example, he will often jab step outside to get the corner to move that way before working across his face. Porter rarely lunges at this first move, instead staying balanced until the receiver works up-field. At that point, he uses his long arms to clamp down until his feet can gain position.

Porter’s ascendance couldn’t come at a better time for the Steelers. With Minkah Fitzpatrick sidelined by injury, and the team’s pass defense ranked 25th in the league coming into the Tennessee game, Pittsburgh needs a play-maker in the secondary. Or, at the very least, someone who can keep elite opposing receivers from making plays. After being gutted earlier in the season by Brandon Aiyuk, Devonte Adams, Puka Nakua and others, the Steelers could use a defender who can force someone other than the opposition’s best to beat them.

This will be especially important in the second half of the season, as the Steelers fight to make the playoffs in a tight AFC. If Pittsburgh can keep games close entering the fourth quarter, like they did Thursday night, they can be successful. The Steelers are now 27-9-1 in one-score games since 2020, which is the highest winning percentage in the league (.743) over that time. Keeping games close will require them to tighten up their pass defense. To do that, Porter will have to play consistently like he did against the Titans.

Thankfully, he lacks neither the confidence nor the ability to do so.


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