PITTSBURGH — The Steelers have been impressed with the sudden ascent of rookie Joey Porter Jr., and for good reason. Their rookie asked to guard DeAndre Hopkins and then held him to one catch when they were matched up against one another. The team does not know if he will shadow players moving forward, mainly because shadowing Hopkins allowed Porter to focus on his strengths rather than his weaknesses, such as tackling; his performance is incredibly encouraging, and Mike Tomlin will not shy away from that praise.
“(Porter) is a young guy with some natural coverage ability and skills and some other components of his game are growing and developing,” Tomlin said. “By virtue of traveling with D-Hop, some of those other things got minimized. So, there’s always a lot of depth to decisions and oftentimes, it’s some other things that are equally important as some obvious things in terms of decision making in terms of matching people up.”
Pro Football Focus has been on the train before Thursday’s 20-16 win over the Tennessee Titans, but now they are hopping even more on it as Porter’s sample size expands. In their weekly cornerback rankings, Porter cracked the top ten, coming in at sixth best overall, and it is not hard to see why he would rank there given his impressive coverage performances so far.
“A newcomer to the rankings, Porter earned starting reps and now has enough snaps to qualify,” PFF wrote. “The rookie has been excellent, allowing 0.67 yards per cover snap, just three first downs and only one touchdown. He’s recorded a 28.6% forced incompletion rate, too.”
Joey Porter Jr. Keeps Improving
There are still concerns in Porter’s game—namely, his tackling and grabbiness. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin acknowledged that there are still weaknesses, but he is a rookie just starting to pick the wheels up as a player. There is growing confidence in the rookie to do just about anything they ask of him, and that needs to happen, given the struggles elsewhere in the group. It has allowed Patrick Peterson to grasp a new side of the defense. His versatility can be embraced because Porter is playing on the outside.
“I think what happened is he liked that, and we thought that match-up would be good based on how we were doing some coverage things,” Austin said. “Hop is a bigger receiver. He’s a bigger guy, kind of matches up with him. I thought he did well. The big thing that we always talk about with Joey is — and a lot of young guys, not just Joey, but a lot of guys coming out of college is in terms of how they’ll call the game here, best contact maybe you’re allowed to have in college, and so the penalty part of it we’ll have to work on. But other than that, everything else I was pleased with what he did and how he competed and all those things.”
Porter continues to impress and has another week’s test against Christian Watson and his athleticism. Pittsburgh has worked into unique sub-package looks with Porter on the outside and Minkah Fitzpatrick out. But it all hinges upon Porter’s ability to be trusted and lock down on the outside. Austin is not against having Porter shadow guys in the future, he did it with Darius Slay.
“Yeah, but if you have a guy that can do that, then that’s what you want,” Austin said. “I had Darius Slay, and we did that with Darius Slay. He had the best receiver every week because he was that good. If we get a guy that we think is that good that can play their best receiver every week, I think that’s a good thing to have.”
There is no guarantee that Porter will grow to be that guy. But the flashes are there for Porter to be a special rookie cornerback. His ascent has been all linear with little dips. Like all rookies, he has issues, but his natural coverage skills are rare for someone this young.