Takeaway from preseason opener positive for Steelers defense
One of the shortcomings — and there were many — in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ divisional playoff loss to Jacksonville in January was a shortage of turnovers created.
Simply put, there weren’t any in that 45-42 loss at Heinz Field seven months ago.
Setting out to be more disruptive on defense, the Steelers showcased their ball-hawking ways in a 31-14 victory against the Philadelphia Eagles in their preseason opener Thursday.
Second-year cornerback Cameron Sutton and veteran Coty Sensabaugh produced interceptions — albeit against the Eagles’ third-string and fourth-string quarterbacks — and outside linebacker Ola Adeniyi had a strip sack that led to Keion Adams’ fumble recovery.
“It’s a good way to start,” Sutton said. “It’s something we preach in this program a lot. We work on it a lot throughout our practices, and it speaks what we preach into existence. You see it so much, you talk about it so much, and you see it happening on the field.
“It’s something we’ve worked on for so long that you’ve got to capitalize on it when you get the opportunities.”
Although the interceptions didn’t lead to any points for the Steelers, the fumble recovery early in the third quarter set up the first of three Chris Boswell field goals and provided a 25-14 lead.
It was a stark contrast to the previous time the Steelers played in a game. The Jaguars returned a fumble for a touchdown and produced a touchdown after an interception, the difference in the Steelers’ three-point loss.
In 2017, the Steelers had 22 takeaways, which ranked No. 13. But they forced at least three turnovers in a game on just two occasions. They had three in a 26-9 win at Baltimore and four in a 40-17 rout of Tennessee.
Coach Mike Tomlin is setting the foundation for more turnovers by his defense in training camp at Saint Vincent.
“The big thing is you put yourself in a position to be opportunistic, and that’s what we’re doing with the work out here,” Tomlin said Saturday. “You put a focus on something, you put yourself in a position to be opportunistic and when that happens, you feel good about it.”
Perhaps just as encouraging is that against the Eagles, the Steelers didn’t break out their subpackages that feature six and sometimes seven defensive backs. They ran either their base defense or brought in an extra cornerback in the nickel package.
“(The Eagles) kept it vanilla, too,” Sutton said. “But even though they kept it basic, they did challenge the defense with different concepts, different blocking schemes … it put guys in a bind at times and challenged us a lot.”
The secondary also made its share of mistakes. Cornerback Dashaun Phillips, playing with the second-teamers in the second quarter, was beaten in single coverage on a 63-yard completion to Shelton Gibson that went for a touchdown. That was reminiscent of 2017, when the Steelers gave up more plays of 40-plus yards than all but two teams.
Against the Eagles, the Steelers gave up three other pass plays — and one run — that were 20 yards or longer.
“I thought everybody did good for it being our first time out there together,” said safety Morgan Burnett, who played his first game with the Steelers. “You’re not going to be perfect. There were things we can work on, things that we can clean up, but now that we have it on film, we can learn from those mistakes.”
The Steelers believe they have a much deeper and talented secondary this season. Four defensive backs from last season are no longer on the roster, including starting free safety Mike Mitchell, who didn’t have an interception in 2017.
First-round pick Terrell Edmunds worked with the first-team defense for much of camp while Burnett was nursing an injury. Safety Marcus Allen was selected in the fifth round. Sutton and fellow corners Brian Allen and Mike Hilton are entering their second season. Artie Burns and Sean Davis are heading into their third season, and Joe Haden, with eight years of NFL experience, now has a full year in the Steelers’ system. Burnett and Nat Berhe also bring experience.
“We can be as good as we want to be,” Sensabaugh said. “This is going on year seven for me, and I think this has been the deepest secondary that I’ve been a part of from top to bottom. Both at safety and corner, we have a lot of guys that can play. It’s going to be interesting to see how it all shakes out.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at [email protected] or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.