The Steelers’ pass defense has been one of the best in the NFL all season, having allowed the fewest yards, the lowest completion percentage, lowest passer rating while also coming up with the most interceptions of any defense in the league.
Monday against Washington, that unit was facing a significant hurdle. The Steelers started the game without starting right cornerback Steven Nelson, who missed the game with a knee injury. In the second half another arose, as starting left cornerback Joe Haden left the game with a concussion.
Usual Dime corner Cameron Sutton moved out to the outside to replace Nelson. When Haden went down, second-year backup Justin Layne stepped into a starting role for the first time in his career, earning 28 snaps, his most ever.
In the midst of all of that, the Steelers were facing one of the very best wide receivers in the entire NFL in 2020. Despite having three different starting quarterbacks, second-year Washington receiver Terry McLaurin entered Monday’s game in the top 10 in the league in receiving yards and targets.
But the thrown-together Steelers secondary was able to shut McLaurin almost completely out of the game. The likely Pro Bowler had just two catches for 14 yards on six targets, making him the most inefficient of Washington’s receiving options.
“We did a good job,” Sutton said on Thursday. “Obviously, a player like that, we’ve seen for the last two years what he does out there each and every week. … Obviously, we didn’t do enough as a whole to come out of it with what we wanted to. That’s something for us to continue to keep building off.”
This week, the Steelers are expected to get Nelson back, but might once again be without Haden, who has not practiced in either of the team’s first two sessions of the week while in the NFL’s concussion protocol.
They’ll once again be faced with a tall order of business, as well. After the Steelers shut down McLaurin, leapfrogging him in the NFL’s receiving yards leaders list was Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stephon Diggs.
Diggs came to Buffalo this offseason in a trade with Minnesota and has quickly become Bills quarterback Josh Allen’s favorite target. Diggs has 1,037 yards, which is currently fifth in the NFL, and his 120 targets are second in the league.
“They got him, and he’s a tough guy to defend,” Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. “They do a lot of different things, and most of the time they keep three wide receivers on the field. Sometimes they’re going to keep four.”
That will mean another full night of work for Layne, Sutton and Nickel corner Mike Hilton.