Early in the free agent process, the Steelers released safeties Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden. Changes were needed at this position. In 2017, not only did the Steelers allow far too many big plays in the passing game, but their safeties, namely Mitchell, didn’t create big plays.
That is why Pittsburgh signed former Green Bay safety Morgan Burnett to a three-year contract for $14.5 million.
Mitchell usually lined up in the deep middle of the field or in a Cover 2 shell. Burnett is more of a strong safety type than he is a deep middle defender, but one of the best things Burnett brings to the table is his versatility. Burnett is well equipped to handle deep half responsibilities. He probably plays the run a little better than the pass at this stage of his career and Burnett is an excellent tackler (which was another problem for Pittsburgh’s safeties last year). But Burnett also can play man coverage against opposing tight ends and running backs. Burnett has done a little of everything and has done it well during his impressive time in Green Bay and is an excellent communicator on the backend. Burnett is a superior run defender to anyone Pittsburgh had playing safety in 2017.
Burnett also brings experience and leadership to the Steelers’ secondary, two things Pittsburgh needs for sure. While Burnett is experienced, at 29-years-old, Burnett should have plenty of quality football ahead of him. 2017 wasn’t his best year as a pro, but the Packers lack of pass-rush didn’t help the cause and few members of Green Bay’s defense played at their best last year.
Another move at the safety position that is most likely on the horizon is the moving of Cameron Sutton from cornerback to free safety as Mitchell’s replacement. Sutton flashed in his rookie season at cornerback and is known as a very savvy and football intelligent young player. In today’s NFL where safeties are often asked to do cornerback-like things, Sutton should transition very well and give Pittsburgh a dimension they have missed at this position.
Sean Davis has been very up and down during his two seasons and his playing time could be reduced with the addition of Burnett. A change in role for Davis might also help his development. He might not be best used near the line of scrimmage and moving him off the ball more regularly could pay dividends.
The Steelers also will surely select a safety of some sort on the first two days of the draft. Sutton, Burnett and Davis all bring different attributes to the position and we might see the Steelers playing much more Big Nickel on early downs and Dime in passing situations. This is especially prudent considering how weak Pittsburgh is on the second level after Ryan Shazier’s tragic injury.
Signing Burnett should pay off very well for the Steelers and it was somewhat shocking that Pittsburgh landed him at such a reasonable rate. With a group of safeties including Burnett, Sutton, Davis and an early pick, it is quite possible that this area of weakness from a year ago quickly becomes a strength on Pittsburgh’s defense.