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Sean Davis provides safety valve for Steelers defense

November 24, 2018

Sean Davis will hit the halfway point of his first season at a new position Sunday. It’s the third position he’s started at during his 2½ years in the NFL.

And though the job description of free safety in the NFL goes well beyond a simple edict, by one high-profile measure Davis has been a success this season.

“I definitely feel as if there is a difference with the (number of) big plays (allowed) compared to last year,” Davis said after Pittsburgh Steelers practice Thursday. “It feels good hearing that, and I guess my presence is playing a small part of that.”

Only two teams in the NFL last season gave up more pass plays of 40-plus yards than the Steelers. Through eight weeks this season, only nine teams have given up fewer.

Even better, the Steelers have not allowed a play of more than 24 yards during their three-game winning streak.

But against the Baltimore Ravens on Sept. 30, the Steelers allowed 71- and 33-yard pass plays to receiver John Brown.

As the rematch with Baltimore awaits Sunday, the Steelers defense -- capped by Davis at its back end -- knows it can’t allow receivers to get behind them.

“We’ve got to make sure that as much as we can, if we keep the ball in front of us, the better chance we’ve got to win the game,” Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. “We can’t give up easy touchdowns.”

One of the best means for accomplishing that end is by limiting long passing plays, which is something the defense did not do the second half of last season and the first four games this season. The Steelers allowed a passing play of 39-plus yards in all but one of those 13 games.

The Steelers defense has tightened since the Patrick Mahomes/Kansas City Chiefs traveling road show won a 42-37 Week 2 shootout. They’ve allowed an average of 212.7 passing yards per game, down an average of almost 100 yards per game since September.

“I’m liking the way we (in the secondary) are going,” Davis said. “We are making plays. ... I feel like we are a group on the rise. We are getting better, stacking wins now, shutting offenses down, a lot more three-and-outs. So I feel like we are doing better.”

From its coach to personnel, the secondary underwent plenty of changes during the offseason, including Davis’ move from strong to free safety. Davis, who at slot cornerback in his rookie season debut, replaced Mike Mitchell at free safety. The Steelers’ new acquisitions at safety (free agent Morgan Burnett and No. 1 draft pick Terrell Edmunds) are more adept at strong safety.

“When we got Sean, we felt like he was a good free safety because he covers a lot of ground,” Butler said. “He’s got a lot of range is what we thought. But we had to use him the way we used him the last couple years because of who we had on the team.”

Davis had played safety and cornerback at Maryland, so he’s used to the shuffling. Still, he said Thursday that the move to free safety in the Steelers’ scheme was “a whole new position,” which has made it difficult for Davis to evaluate his play as compared to last season.

Some of the experts, though, give glowing reviews: Pro Football Focus grades Davis as having his best season. Its analysis concluding he’s allowed no passing plays of more than 23 yards when he’s in coverage and that opponents have a 66.3 passer rating when targeting him (third-best among Steelers).

He’s also been durable, playing a team-high 489 defensive snaps, 99.2 percent of the team total.

“I feel like I am getting better each week, but it is a whole new position though so I am still learning,” Davis said. “I’m still trying to get better each and every week. But I feel like I am picking it up.”

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