The Pittsburgh Steelers have reached the point where the secondary has become their primary concern, to the point where the thought of facing Ryan Fitzpatrick following Patrick Mahomes sends shivers down your spine.
And you thought tying the Browns was bad.
In the Monday Night Football game at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Steelers’ cornerbacks face the NFL’s top passing offense through the first two weeks of the season.
That’s a challenge for the cornerbacks, a position at which the Steelers have invested a first-round pick in Artie Burns, a third-rounder in Cameron Sutton and a three-year, $27-million deal in Joe Haden. They need that investment to start paying off.
“I honestly think every week as a corner you have to take it personal,” Steelers cornerback Coty Sensabaugh said. “It’s a passing league. The league wants to see a lot of points scored, fans want to see a lot of points scored. So as a corner, you have to take it personal every week because most teams have numerous receivers that can play. Very seldom to do you find a team with no receivers.
“It’s more of a spotlight because it’s “Monday Night Football,” and everybody is watching. When you step on that field, your film is your resume. Every week, every play, you’ve got to be ready to go.”
The Bucs lead the league in passing yards per game (405) and passing yards per attempt (13.4). Journeyman Fitzpatrick has flourished in subbing for suspended starter Jameis Winston, delivering to big-play receivers DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans and tight end O.J. Howard, who Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler called “exceptional.”
“He understands what defenses are trying to do,” Butler said of Fitzpatrick, who has an 0-5 career record against the Steelers. “He knows who to read, who not to read and who’s what we call the ‘huckleberry’ on your defense — who he can try to take advantage of.”
The Steelers already might have identified the huckleberry on their own by benching Burns, their 2016 first-round draft pick. After Mahomes completed 23 of 28 passes for 326 yards and six touchdowns without an interception in the 42-37 loss to the Chiefs, the Steelers appear set to start Sensabaugh against the Bucs.
This change came after Butler was careful not to single out an individual position — let alone player — on the defense. Maybe he’s aware of that old line about the guy that doesn’t get the joke, and Butler doesn’t want to be the huckleberry.
“When you lose like we did — we gave up 42 points against these guys — it’s good to spread it around a little bit,” Butler said. “They’re not the only ones that messed up in this game. We messed up as coaches, too, as far as making sure we get the details of their assignment coached.”
The Steelers know since Ryan Shazier’s spine injury they aren’t going to win with their defense but in spite of it. They admitted there were miscommunication issues, but the biggest breakdown might be why Burns is being demoted.
“I gave up plays. Everyone saw that,” Burns said. “We’re the last line of defense. Everything they score is on us.”
The Chiefs scored on passes of 25 yards to tight end Travis Kelce and 29 yards to Tyreek Hill, and those didn’t rank in their top three plays. Mahomes connected with Sammy Watkins on a 40-yarder, with Hill on a 36-yarder and Kelce on a 31-yarder.
The Bucs are just as dangerous. Jackson has five catches of 20-plus yards and two of 40-plus, and Evans and Howard have three of 20-plus yards each. If the Steelers are going to rely on their offense, they have to give it a fighting chance by preventing big plays.
“With this defense and the offense that we have, you just don’t want to ever get beat over the top,” said Haden, who missed the Chiefs game with a hamstring injury but is expected to play against the Bucs. “I always try to tell our DBs, ‘Keep them catching the ball coming back to the quarterback.’ It’s going to make them go the long haul, make them get first downs and keep going. If they beat us with the bomb, that takes away the whole thing that we’ve got going.”
The Bucs present a challenge to the Steelers secondary, especially the cornerbacks. The demotion presents a challenge to Burns, who began the week with the confidence that if he can cover Antonio Brown every day in practice that he should be able to stick with any explosive receiver.
“We didn’t do our job,” Burns said. “We knew that during the game, and we knew that after the game. We’ve got another week to correct it. Tune in and watch us show what we can do.”
It’s “Monday Night Football,” so the world will be watching. The Steelers corners need to show that they can cover before this season reaches the point of no return.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at email@example.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.