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The absence of a proven slot defender is Pittsburgh’s most unsettled roster question

With the draft and the bulk of free agency in the rearview mirror, the dust has started to settle on the Steelers 2024 pre-season roster. Analysts and pundits have almost universally lauded their moves, which have included revamping the quarterback room, bolstering the offensive line, upgrading the linebacking corps and adding speed at wide receiver. Still, there are holes to be filled, and the Steelers will likely use the second wave of free agency to address their remaining needs.

One area that has received a lot of attention in this regard is the receiver position. The Steelers are faster there than they were last season, adding speedsters Quez Watkins in free agency and Roman Wilson in the draft. But they traded Diontae Johnson to Carolina and are yet to replace him with a player of equal value. Watkins and fellow free agent signee Van Jefferson seem better suited as depth pieces, while Wilson is predominantly a slot player. Calvin Austin III returns to the team but he, at present, is far from Johnson’s equal. The Steelers were actively engaged in trade talks to acquire either of San Francisco’s starting receivers — Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel — and kicked the tires on signing Tyler Boyd in free agency. None of those moves materialized. Omar Khan may make a splash move at the position in the form of a trade before training camp opens. But if not, the Steelers may have enough there to accommodate new coordinator Arthur Smith, whose scheme does not demand huge production from the receiver position.

Another area that has received less attention, but appears to be in worse shape than the receiver group, is the role of slot defender. Pittsburgh played 61% of its snaps last season using a fifth defensive back in the slot role. Predominantly, they filled it with Chandon Sullivan and Patrick Peterson, who combined for 628 of the 710 slot snaps taken by Steelers corners. The remaining 82 snaps were split between Joey Porter Jr, Levi Wallace, Darius Rush and James Pierre. Of those players, only Porter and Rush, who combined for 53 slot snaps, remain on the roster.

The Steelers also used safeties as slot defenders. Minkah Fitzpatrick took most of those reps, with 227 snaps. That number would have been bigger had Fitzpatrick not missed seven games with injury, so it’s possible his role as a slot defender will grow. Keanu Neal, Trenton Thompson and Eric Rowe also received slot snaps, although only Thompson, whose reps were limited, is still with the team.

Many thought Pittsburgh would fill the slot role by nabbing Michigan’s Mike Sanristil in the draft. But Sanristil, who was one of the best slot corners in college football last season, was snapped up by the Washington Commanders one pick before Pittsburgh selected in Round Two. Pittsburgh did take a 6th Round flyer on Ryan Watts, a big (6’3-208) press corner out of the University of Texas. But Watts is a developmental prospect and not a candidate to man the slot.

How might the Steelers fill the void? There’s optimism over Rush, a 5th Round pick by the Colts last season who was waived in training camp and eventually signed by the Steelers off of Kansas City’s practice squad. Rush played in three late-season games for Pittsburgh, earning 13 snaps in the slot. There’s also some buzz around an undrafted free agent out of this year’s class — cornerback Beanie Bishop of West Virginia. Bishop led college football with 20 pass break-ups last season and added four interceptions while earning 2nd-Team All-America honors. Bishop is a small corner (5’9-182) who went undrafted largely over concerns about whether he can hold up at that size. He also spent six years in college at three different schools and is already 24 years old, which aged him out on some team’s draft boards. The Steelers, though, have hinted he’ll receive slot reps from the outset in training camp. If he proves to be as effective as another undersized slot corner who went undrafted but found success in Pittsburgh, fans will be thrilled. That player was Mike Hilton, to whom Bishop has been repeatedly compared.

While Rush did some good things last season, and enthusiasm for Bishop is high, relying on either unproven player to lock down such an important role is risky. The Steelers could mitigate that risk by playing more of the three-safety looks they’ve gravitated towards the past two seasons. Fitzpatrick didn’t make the splash plays in the box last season that he often makes as a deep safety, but he was extremely effective defending underneath receivers. He allowed just a 56.3 completion percentage on targeted receivers while playing in the box. He also averaged 6 1/2 tackles per game, which was one of the highest rates of his career. DeShon Elliott, signed from Dallas in free agency, also possesses the requisite toughness and ability to take reps as a slot defender. The team’s third safety, Damontae Kazee, had a down season in 2023 marred by injuries and a PED suspension, but has proven himself a capable deep defender should the Steelers gravitate towards more three-safety looks again this season.

Pittsburgh does have options, then. The question is, are any of them good enough? Do they need to acquire a proven player between now and the start of training camp to solidify the slot position? OTAs in May and June will provide a good look at Rush and Bishop and time to experiment with their three-safety looks. It won’t surprise me, though, if they keep a close eye on available veterans who can bring more experience to the role. One such veteran — Peterson — remains unsigned and has signaled a willingness to return to Pittsburgh on a reasonable deal. That’s a move that would make sense and could come to fruition. In the meantime, this will be one of the team’s most interesting position battles over the next several months.

Follow me on Twitter @KTSmithFFSN and @CoachsCallSheet.


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