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Steelers Still Reaching for Answers in Defensive Backfield

Newly-signed cornerback Joe Haden could provide much-needed help, if the Steelers were right and the Browns were wrong about his health.

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The state of the Steelers heading into the regular season can best be summed up by what transpired just prior to the preseason finale at Carolina.

The Browns cut cornerback Joe Haden and the Steelers couldn’t sign him quickly enough.

Once a first-round draft pick and a second-team All-Pro, Haden’s game has since degenerated. And there are those who evaluate NFL players for a living who will tell you that, coming off two groin surgeries, Haden can no longer run the way he once could.

The Steelers, clearly, disagree.

Haden’s biggest asset to the Steelers right now might be that he isn’t Ross Cockrell or William Gay, but for the Steelers that’s more than enough.

They tried signing Cockrell, after he’d been cut by Buffalo, and trading for Brandon Boykin in the preseason in 2015.

They brought in former Browns first-round bust Justin Gilbert just prior to the start of the season last season.

And they still haven’t found what they’re looking for.

Such is the state of their secondary.

That’s the group that was the most in need of improving after last season.

And that’s the group the Steelers ought to be the most uncertain about heading into this season. 

And for the Steelers that should be more than a little unsettling.

Tight end isn’t up to speed, based on the acquisition of Vance McDonald from San Francisco.

Wide receiver is still a little sketchy as the Steelers wait for Martavis Bryant’s full reinstatement from suspension and for Bryant to shake the effects of more than a year off.

And running back Le’Veon Bell will head to Cleveland for the opener on Sept. 10 after having had zero preparation with his team in the preseason, and, if his social media posts are to be believed, obsessing about the money he won’t be making this season.

But those issues all appear resolvable.

McDonald is an upgrade at tight end, at least from a pass-catching standpoint, and should have his best football ahead of him.

Bryant, presumably, will at some point be given the NFL’s blessing and at some point will knock off the rust.

And Bell will eventually start carrying the ball and stop posting (we can only hope).

But will the Steelers be any better on the back end?

Haden might enjoy something of a revival after escaping Cleveland’s Factory of Sadness, but even if he does can he provide more than a minimal upgrade at the cornerback position?

Cornerback Artie Burns and safety Sean Davis should be better as second-year players, but can they improve enough to be difference-makers?

Can safety Mike Mitchell, a critical component of the secondary, stay healthy after missing almost the entire preseason due to a hamstring injury?

Can rookie cornerback Cam Sutton become the contributor the Steelers envisioned when they drafted him on the third round after enduring a hamstring injury that kept him sidelined for the majority of training camp and the preseason?

And can the defensive backfield, in whatever configuration, master the press-man coverage the Steelers are presumably going to have to play at some point this season –– the New England game comes immediately to mind –– in order to have a chance to go further than they did a year ago?

The best of teams must continue to develop as a season progresses, an absolute of contention head coach Mike Tomlin has already acknowledged.

But that’s a lot of questions to still be asking this late in the process.

More than a perceived Super Bowl contender ought to be dealing with approaching the regular-season opener.

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