Rookie aids Steelers’ defensive resurgence

The Steelers haven't lost a game since rookie safety Sean Davis was inserted into the starting lineup in Week 10. (AP)

PITTSBURGH (AP) – A month into his rookie season, Sean Davis was lost. Asked to split time between free safety and nickelback, the Pittsburgh Steelers second-round pick could do neither particularly well.

At one point, veteran safety Mike Mitchell turned toward Davis during a game and asked Davis what coverage the team was in. Davis immediately came back with an answer. The wrong one.

Sensing Davis was a bit overwhelmed, defensive coordinator Keith Butler and secondary coach Carnell Lake pulled back. Davis sat and mostly watched for a couple of weeks in late October, trying to absorb everything he could and joining Mitchell early at the team facility for film work.

The studying paid off with a rebirth that coincided with Pittsburgh’s sprint to the AFC North title. The player whose teammates weren’t sure they could always trust in September was named the Steelers rookie of the year on Thursday.

“It wasn’t the start that I had envisioned but I worked,” Davis said. “I worked through adversity and I worked through problems. I know what I’m capable of.”

The 23-year-old has spent the last six weeks showcasing why Pittsburgh (10-5) took him with the 58th overall pick and gave him so much responsibility in the first place. Davis has become a presence at the line of scrimmage, his 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame a fixture in opposing backfields, be it putting pressure on the quarterback or clogging up running lanes.

The Steelers haven’t lost since Davis became a full-time starter in Week 10 against Cleveland. While there are countless other factors on Pittsburgh’s resurgence – namely running back Le’Veon Bell’s emergence as one of the most talented players in the league – Davis’ rapid development has been crucial. His stamina too. Davis is the only defensive player to be on the field for every snap during the six-game winning streak that’s carried the Steelers to the AFC North title. And that doesn’t include another 56 plays on special teams.

Davis hardly seems burdened by the workload.

“That’s just how I’m built,” Davis said. “Me to not play every snap? That’s different. That’s weird.”

Even if his coaches felt it was necessary. Better to let Davis take a breath and reset himself than press forward when he wasn’t quite ready.

“There’s a lot of peer pressure especially as the season goes along, especially for a rookie,” Butler said. “We probably give a little leeway for rookies early in the season. Later in season … it gets tight and it should get tight. The intensity level should go up and with that we’ve demanded more from him.”

Davis didn’t really have much choice to grow up quickly. Lake championed Davis during the draft process, convinced Davis had the speed and the smarts to thrive in a position that was in flux in 2015 following Troy Polamalu’s retirement. Having Lake – a five-time Pro Bowler at safety for Pittsburgh and Jacksonville during a 12-year career – in his corner allowed Davis to push through the midseason benching without losing his confidence.

“Just because we’re rookies,” Davis said, “we don’t want to be the slack of the team.”

They’re not.