Rookie Tre Norwood is developing into key member of Steelers' secondary

Tre Norwood has been a quick learner in his rookie season, and that's one of the reasons the Steelers have been confident in using him in key spots. Joe Sargent/Getty Images

PITTSBURGH -- The early reviews of Pittsburgh Steelers rookie seventh-rounder Tre Norwood were graphic.

Positive, but graphic.

Special teams coordinator Danny Smith, in a way only the fast-talking, gum-chomping coach can do, used colorful language to describe the qualities that made Norwood a standout before the season even began.

“I put him in some tough situations in front of people, in front of his teammates in practice,” Smith said in early September. “He never blinked. He never blinked. He really didn’t. I told him to cut his eyelids off because that boy don’t blink.”

With eyelids fully intact, Norwood has continued to impress coaches through his first six weeks as an NFL player, earning pivotal roles in the secondary along with special teams responsibilities.

“Tre has been part of a group that has provided big-time versatility for us,” coach Mike Tomlin said Sunday. “We've been working hard to find a division of labor there at the early portions of the season. Mike Hilton (who is now with the Bengals) was a significant guy in some of that stuff here, and so we've got a bunch of guys doing a bunch of things.

“[Norwood is] a part of that group. We're trying to highlight the individual skill sets. It provides an opportunity for a lot of those guys to make plays, and he's one of them.”

In Sunday’s win against the Seattle Seahawks, Norwood was responsible for three key stops on third downs.

His tackle on DK Metcalf came in the opening minutes of the first quarter when he recognized the receiver running a mesh route and Norwood made a read on quarterback Geno Smith. Once he saw the ball come out of Smith’s hands, he made a break on it and tackled Metcalf for a gain of just 2 yards.

Later in the first quarter, Norwood again anticipated Smith looking for receiver Tyler Lockett on a mesh route and made another well-timed break on the ball, preventing Lockett from making the grab on third down.

“It’s just study habits,” Norwood said Monday. “That’s something I’ve always prided myself on, especially starting back in college [at Oklahoma]. Just making sure that whenever I’m learning something new, that I pick it up in the quickest way possible. Apply it to myself, the best way that I can learn. I feel like that’s what helps me out a lot, taking what the coaching point is, or whatever needs to be learned, and breaking it down into terms that fit best with me.”

Those habits are what first grabbed Smith’s attention during training camp. A notoriously tough evaluator, Smith praised Norwood for his ability to retain information and react quickly during special teams quizzes in the preseason.

“Tre Norwood is smart as hell,” Smith said. “I have challenged him with way-down-the-line things we’re gonna see in Week 10, and 12, and 13, and 14, and things like that, that he was able to answer.”

Norwood started his first NFL game Week 1 in Buffalo, playing 68 snaps against the Bills. Since then, his playing time decreased as the Steelers tinkered with the right combination in the secondary to fill Hilton’s responsibilities, but his impact increased. Against the Seahawks, Norwood played just 15 snaps, but he had three key tackles and one pass defensed to show for it.

“Tre’s been doing well,” secondary coach Teryl Austin said. “He gets a little better with more experience, really sharp player, so you don’t see him making the same mistakes twice, which is good. He’s really been coming in in the dime personnel because we like his pass savvy and his route-recognition skills.”

Because of Norwood’s development and an increased comfort in using slot corner Arthur Maulet and corner James Pierre, the Steelers frequently deploy their nickel and dime packages. Through six weeks, the Steelers have five defensive backs on 45.6% of plays and six defensive backs on 26.1%.

Norwood is used most often in the dime packages, playing 58.2% of his snaps in the subpackage. The other 41.8% of his snaps have come when the Steelers go into nickel.

“I think he’s become a good player and a good fit for us because of how smart he is, what he does. He’s got good underneath coverage skills, got good route recognition, awareness,” Austin said. “He’s a tough kid, and that’s why he’s able to carve out that niche early with us, and it’ll keep growing.”