PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have drafted five cornerbacks from 2015 to 2017 and none of them starts for this year's team. Former first-round pick Artie Burns was demoted. Former second-round pick Senquez Golson was released in 2017 before playing an NFL snap.
The uneven draft slate has forced Pittsburgh to start two veteran corners on their third NFL contracts. Joe Haden and Coty Sensabaugh are doing an admirable job, but the Steelers have been forced to get creative.
Which brings us to one of coach Mike Tomlin's favorite topics: subpackage defense.
"Sub is the new base in the NFL," Tomlin said.
That's why Steelers fans will see up to six or seven defensive backs on the field during some third downs, aiming for an infusion of speed in open space.
Six defensive backs -- three safeties, three corners -- is called a "quarters" package, which features L.J. Fort as the linebacker on passing downs.
Seven defensive backs (four corners) is the "dollar."
The Steelers experimented with these setups in training camp, but they've become big factors the last few weeks as safety Morgan Burnett got healthy. The Steelers are allowing 18 points per game during this four-game winning streak.
"It's about having like bodies on the field, mixing it up based on matchups to keep up with the passing game," Fort said. "In general, most teams across the league are not running the ball too much on that down. We've been hitting our stride, so we've got to keep it going."
Through four weeks, the Steelers were among the league's worst defenses. Players cited miscommunication as the issue. Not having a full arsenal for the passing downs led to confusion and, thus, missed tackles.
The Steelers needed time to find their identity. The last two games, however, they've held the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns to a combined 7-of-25 on third down. Pittsburgh now ranks 10th league-wide in third-down defense, with opponents converting 37 percent.
The plays are coming on early downs, too. Hilton and rookie safety Terrell Edmunds had impressive pass breakups in the end zone on first and second downs, respectively. Sean Davis mans the free safety spot in any package, while Cam Sutton is the fourth cornerback in the "dollar."
"We've got a lot of guys who can run and cover," Hilton said. "Now that everyone’s healthy, we can be the versatile defense we know we can be. It’s showed the last couple of weeks. When we’re all on the same page, we’re hard to beat.”
Burnett, the Steelers' big free-agent signing in March, can line up against tight ends or blitz. Edmunds is the starter for now, but Burnett gives the Steelers flexibility to scale the rookie back if necessary.
Both will play, though. As will a herd of other defensive backs expected to plug passing lanes.
Perhaps that was a call for his group to settle down, which they eventually did.
"It’s just evolved over the course of the journey," Tomlin said about his sub packages. "We are looking at the components available to us, the men and their skills sets, what they are being asked to do and what their capabilities are. It’s just been revealed to us over a course of time. It’s still very much a work in progress."