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Legion of Whom? Tom Brady to Test Steelers Secondary Replacements



Steelers Josh Jackson James Pierre

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers enter Week 6 with a battered and beaten secondary, while facing one of the most dangerous passers in the history of the league in Tampa Bay Buccaneers veteran starter Tom Brady.

The Steelers, who have the No. 30 pass defense in the league through five weeks, are without All-Pro free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and all three starting cornerbacks: Cam Sutton, Levi Wallace and Ahkello Witherspoon.

Instead, the Steelers will start reliable strong safety Terrell Edmunds, who is returning from the NFL concussion protocol after missing last week’s game, with a menagerie of young and unheralded players around him.

Second-year former seventh-round pick Tre Norwood will start at free safety, while Art Maulet, signed as a street free agent in 2021, will man the slot. While those two may not have the acclaim of the players that they’re replacing, at least No. 21 and No. 35 should be somewhat familiar to Steelers fans.

That’s not necessarily the case for the rest of the starting secondary. Third-year outside corner James Pierre will make his fifth career start at one boundary cornerback position, while Josh Jackson will start at the other. 

Jackson was a second-round pick of the Green Bay Packers back in 2018, and has plenty of NFL experience, playing in 42 games and making 15 starts for the Pack between 2018 and 2020. But he’s awfully new to the Steelers. The team added him to its practice squad on Sept. 5, but he played in his first game in Black and Gold as a reserve practice squad call-up last Sunday.

This week, both will make their first start of the 2022 season. That’s probably not providing a lot of good feelings for the Steelers faithful that has seen its starting secondary struggle so far this season, but the backups feel like they’re ready to go when needed.

“Being in my fifth year, I really feel good for anything,” Jackson said. “I feel like I’ve seen enough football, played enough football to go out there and know how to play. I really feel good and I feel confident. It’s the most confident I’ve been in my career.”

Pierre was the surprise of Steelers training camp in 2020, earning a role despite no preseason and limited opportunities, and has been a mainstay of Pittsburgh’s special teams, excelling as a kickoff and punt coverer.

But he hasn’t turned it into more opportunities on the defense. After passing Justin Layne to become the No. 3 outside corner down the stretch run of 2020, the Ahkello Witherspoon passed Pierre in 2021. Pierre didn’t take a single snap on defense in the last six weeks of the 2021 season or the first four games of 2022.

But the time away from the defense may have paid off. Pierre was the highest-graded member of the Steelers secondary from Pro Football Focus last week, and he got a compliment after the game from Bills star receiver Stephon Diggs.

“He came up after the game and told me to keep going,” Pierre said. “He liked my play and said to just keep working. That’s just more confidence for me.”

Joining those two in the “Legion of Whom?” secondary this week will be former New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles safety and slot corner Elijah Riley, who once was an undrafted free agent out of Army West Point, and Quincy Wilson another former second-round pick that the Steelers signed mid-season. 

Riley will replace Norwood as a backup free safety and slot corner. Wilson will be the backup outside corner, and could push the versatile Jackson to the slot if they want to play a cover-heavy Dime.

“I’ve really kind of been learning both, inside and outside,” Jackson said. “As a pro, you’ve got to be prepared for everything. You never know what could happen or go down in a game.”

The no-name secondary will have one advantage on Sunday, as they’ll have a staff of about seven secondary coaches in their ear, with the usual coaching staff joined by the chorus of inactive veterans trying to keep the newcomers in line.

“They keep it plain and simple,” Pierre said. “No drop offs allowed.”