PITTSBURGH – It is no secret that the Steelers have, like most teams, struggled against some of the athletic freaks that now populate the NFL and play the tight end position.
Only five NFL teams allowed more than the 87 receptions Pittsburgh did last year to opposing tight ends. The Steelers ranked in the bottom of the league with 914 receiving yards and eight touchdown catches given up to tight ends.
Enter Sean Davis, all 6-1, 202 pounds of him, to solve that defensive problem.
The Steelers’ second-round draft pick out of Maryland was viewed as a combo-defensive back after playing safety in his first three seasons and cornerback last fall.
The Steelers looked at Davis as the answer to their problems covering tight ends.
“He will line up at safety but he will also be able to match up on some of the bigger receivers and tight ends,” said Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert. “So we’re excited about that.”
When you play in a division that includes big pass-catching tight ends such as Tyler Eifert in Cincinnati, Maxx Williams in Baltimore and Cleveland’s Gary Barnidge, you’d better have somebody capable of matching up with big, athletic guys downfield.
That’s something in which Davis specializes.
“The game is changing with these crazy tight ends,” Davis said at the Steelers’ three-day rookie mini-camp that wrapped up Sunday. “I’m big, so I can handle them. I can cover a tight end or slot (receiver), so I’m really glad to have played corner.”
Not that it was all great.
Like the rest of his Maryland teammates, Davis struggled at times last season as the Terrapins went 3-9 overall and 1-7 in the Big Ten. Davis improved as the season wore on as he adjusted from being a player who faced the quarterback on most plays, to being one who played with his back to the quarterback as he covered downfield.
After leading the Terrapins with 115 tackles as a junior, he saw his numbers fall to 88 as a senior. But he also intercepted three passes and forced five fumbles, showing an aggresiveness to jar the ball loose that the Steelers like.
“I liked playing corner,” said Davis, a Washington, D.C. native. “I’m more comfortable playing safety because I’ve got three years under my belt playing safety. If I had played corner for two years, I’d have liked that a little more. Still, playing corner for one year, I got to showcase my coverage skills a little more. But it feels good to be back playing safety.”
Some were surprised the Steelers selected Davis in the second round with more ballyhooed players at the position still available, such as Ohio State’s Vonn Bell or Boston College’s Justin Simmons. Pittsburgh believes Davis’ combination of coverage ability and playmaking ability best fits their defense.
The Steelers have Mike Mitchell returning at free safety but did not re-sign starting strong safety Will Allen, a free agent. Allen replaced longtime starter Troy Polamalu, who retired after the 2014 season.
Robert Golden is likely the starter at strong safety but few would be surprised if Davis replaces him.
“In today’s NFL, you know offenses challenge in a lot of ways. They work to put safeties in man-to-man situations,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. “This is a guy who has the physicality in the tackle to play the safety position but also has a background in the corner position that is going to allow him to cover receivers in the slot, to potentially man-up on the vertical threat tight ends. His skillset lends itself to a lot of things that are very significant in today’s NFL.”
Davis will have to get used to wearing a less flamboyant uniform.
Because the football program has struggled in recent years, Maryland, like many schools, has tried to jazz things up on the field a little by going with a less traditional look. The team changes its uniforms for every game, including the helmets, often making it difficult to figure out who is playing because they don’t stick to the school’s traditional red-and-white color scheme.
“I liked the uniforms,” Davis said with a chuckle. “Some of the stuff was a little over the top, but I liked the uniforms. … I like what they’re doing.”
Davis stood out, no matter what uniform he was wearing or who he was playing against.
Maryland switched conferences from the ACC to the Big Ten in 2015, presenting a whole new set of challenges. While many ACC teams use more finesse-type offenses, Davis saw a different style of play in the Big Ten.
“It was just a different kind of ball – bigger guys,” Davis said. “Personnel-wise, I didn’t see two tight ends in the ACC. Now, I was seeing two tight ends, two fullbacks, crazy packages like that. It was something we had to adjust to, I had to adjust to. I really am glad I got to see two different types of football. I think it will help me. … I got to see it all.”
Davis already has noticed a difference in the buzz between his college and pro teams.
The Steelers sent Davis and fellow draft picks Artie Burns and Javon Hargrave to a fan fest at Heinz Field on the final day of the draft last Saturday. The hoopla caught Davis by surprise.
“I loved being around people who were excited and pumped up,” Davis said. “We didn’t get that at Maryland. Just being around people who are 100 percent football, a winning team, it’s exciting.”