How a lost Steeler became 'best-tackling free safety' in NFL

PITTSBURGH -- Sean Davis might not want the Pittsburgh Steelers to know that the free safety experiment is going so well.

"I don't know if I should tell myself that because they might move me next year," said Davis, who has experimented at cornerback and strong safety since the Steelers selected him in the second round of the 2016 draft out of Maryland. "But [it] feels great to finally just know where I'm going to be at each play."

The Steelers have hit on a defensive back in the draft, which hasn't exactly been a position of strength. Their top three cornerbacks include two free-agent veterans previously released by other teams (Joe Haden, Coty Sensabaugh) and an undrafted slot corner (Mike Hilton) despite the selection of five corners in the past four drafts.

But at safety, Davis is ascending in his third season despite his versatility hindering him at times in the past. He played some corner and safety at Maryland, so the Steelers tried both spots in his rookie year, to mixed results.

In Year 2, Davis led the team in tackles but hadn't maximized his potential.

Teammates are seeing it now.

"I think he's the best-tackling free safety in the league," Sensabaugh said. "He holds us down. He's physical."

Davis, who pairs with first-round rookie Terrell Edmunds and Morgan Burnett at safety, said the free safety spot suits him because of his speed in the open field. A player once known for the occasional bad penalty has shown discipline as the last line of defense.

Quarterbacks are constantly trying to use their eyes to move Davis into the wrong spot.

"Don't let the bait get me off my landmarks," Davis said of his in-game mentality.

With three pass deflections and no interceptions, Davis is hoping for more splash plays. "I'm close," said Davis, who had a near-interception in Jacksonville last weekend.

But quiet performances aren't so bad for the free safety in a Pittsburgh defense that prioritizes minimal communication breakdowns on the back end.

Coach Mike Tomlin said Davis is adeptly playing the "traffic cop" role once manned by Mike Mitchell and Ryan Clark.

"There's a lot of responsibility with that role, so he's delivering similar tangible production in terms of numbers and tackling and so forth, but this guy has made a dramatic step in terms of what he brings to us because he keeps a lid on it back there," Tomlin said.

"He communicates, he's a hub of communication, he's done a heck of a job of it and he is evolving. Like we're talking about our team, he's done well, but he's going to do better and he continually has displayed that and we expect that because he has been in the lineup. But some of the responsibilities and some of the things we ask him to do are new to him."

Davis has learned to become a better pro the last two years, ditching fast food for chef-prepared meals. He shunned the training room in college but now dwells there to keep his body fresh. He gets dry needle therapy and massages off the field.

Everything's about consistency, which could pay off -- literally -- in the coming months. Davis is a free agent in 2020, and the Steelers might be proactive in signing him before then.

For now, Davis is more concerned with the basics, and a change in safety thinking.

"Not really worried about knocking people out," he said. "I'm really concerned with being a solid tackler."