PITTSBURGH — Patrick Peterson did a double take.
As a lanky, rookie cornerback pulled in an interception off quarterback Mitch Trubisky in the waning minutes of an OTA team period, the veteran started celebrating his teammate.
Peterson almost started yelling the wrong name.
“Honestly, on the interception that Cory [Trice] got, I almost said, ‘JP,’ because he looks just like [Joey Porter Jr.],” Peterson said. “But to have both of these young — as Coach [Mike Tomlin] likes to call ’em — ‘Avatar’ cornerbacks, it’s going to be special, man, because these guys, both of them, they want to learn. They want to get as much knowledge that they need to be successful. When you see young guys like that, you just can’t help but to pour into them.”
Drafted five rounds apart, rookies Porter and Trice aren’t actually larger-than-life, James Cameron-created blue beings, but they represent the new wave of Steelers cornerbacks, matching a leaguewide trend that has seen the rise of bigger-bodied, lanky defensive backs.
“These guys are tremendous athletes,” Peterson said. “Big, strong. I told these guys they are the ‘new day and age’ cornerbacks because this is what NFL GMs and teams are looking for. Big, long guys who can run and also who have those physical attributes. And it is definitely fun to have these young guys around, cause maybe it could help me play three more years.”
Not only is Porter 6-foot-2, he also has a wingspan of nearly 81 inches — roughly 6-8. While Trice doesn’t have an official wingspan measurement listed, his 40-yard dash was a speedy 4.47 seconds, just one hundredth of a second slower than Porter’s. The Steelers had Porter higher on their board than Trice, selecting the Penn State product with the first pick of the second round, but Trice, a redshirt senior from Purdue, was a coveted prospect, too.
“The way that he plays press [coverage], being able to go down and not play a motor technique, not back up, but really just used that 6-3, 6-2 frame to just take up a lot of space and make guys work on the line of scrimmage,” said Steelers defensive backs coach Grady Brown during the draft, explaining what he liked about Trice. “… He just doesn’t back up. A lot of times in today’s game, guys walk down on the line of scrimmage, and as soon as the receiver moves or the receiver flinches, they back up and we’re giving back the space that we walked down to take away. He doesn’t do that.”
Initially, Trice wasn’t sure what to make of his head coach’s “Avatar” comparison, but he agreed with the characterization once his teammates filled him in.
“Honestly, I didn’t even know anything about what an ‘Avatar’ was,” Trice said. “But I heard that they’re tall aliens. I think it’s good, especially Mike Tomlin calling us that. So we’re just going to take it, and roll with it.”
The Steelers have trended toward taller defensive backs recently, but at over 74 inches, Porter and Trice are the tallest drafted by the Steelers since ESPN began collecting draft measurement data in 2006. The Steelers last drafted defensive backs in 2019 and 2017, and those players were an average height of 73.75 inches and 73.1875, respectively. In the 2012, 2013 and 2015 Steelers draft classes, defensive backs were an average height of less than 70.5 inches.
So what does it all mean? Why are the Steelers accumulating “Avatar” cornerbacks now?
In 2012, defensive backs 6-foot or taller played about 1,000 fewer snaps than those shorter than 6-foot, per ESPN Stats & Information research. In the 10 seasons since, snap counts of defensive backs of at least 6 feet tall have increased by 25%, while snaps for defensive backs shorter than 6 feet have dropped by 12%. Last season, the taller group of defensive backs played 36,062 snaps more than their shorter position mates.
“Those guys are big, long,” Brown said during minicamp. “You can have guys with great length, and they might not always be big. Those guys are big, have great size, great speed. I joke with them. I say they are the big brothers, guys like them. … If someone’s bullying you, go get your big brother, and those guys are the big brothers.” The leaguewide trend toward the type of player Brown describes — including guys such as Seattle 2022 fifth-round pick Tariq Woolen (6-4, 210 pounds) and Jets 2022 first-rounder Sauce Gardner (6-3, 200 pounds) — Steelers wide receivers coach Frisman Jackson said, is partially due to the rise of big-bodied receivers.
“The big wideouts was the huge trend to overcome the small DBs,” Jackson said. “And now the big corners are in, and that’s the new thing. And so I tell my guys, these guys got long arms. You’ve got to get yourself ready for a fight. That’s becoming the thing in the league. You look around the league and everybody’s got a 6-2, 6-3 corner, and so it’s going to be great to go against these two guys here and training camp during the season because they’ll give us that iron-on-iron work that we need.”
But size isn’t everything, Tomlin cautioned. Porter’s and Trice’s success will be dictated more by how they utilize that size and how they fit the Steelers’ scheme. In the Steelers’ man-to-man aggressive defense, that length can be useful — as long as they’re in control.
“Length is an asset if you’re clean, so they’ve got to be penalty-free,” Tomlin said. “You know, they got to know which way they’re going. Sometimes when you’re short, your [awareness] is excellent, and when you’re out of place, you make up things faster. When you’re long you don’t. And so, they’re very much writing their story about what they’re capable of being. I like their attentiveness. I like the attributes that they bring, but it’s premature to kind of paint a picture of where they are.”
Another benefit of having Porter and Trice in the fold is the flexibility it lends to Peterson. If Porter, who’s spent time with the first-team defense during offseason workouts, lines up on the outside opposite veteran Levi Wallace, Peterson can kick inside to the slot, a position up for grabs after the surprise departure of Arthur Maulet. Though he was coy about the possibility during OTAs, Peterson spoke openly about his willingness to play all over the field when he signed a two-year, $14 million deal with the Steelers in March.
“I don’t know what the plan is just yet, but I’m definitely open for it,” Peterson said in his introductory news conference. “It’s no secret. I’m not 28 years old anymore, you know what I mean? I’ll be 33 here in July, but the body feels great. I want to be in a position to continue to help my team, but also be in a position that’s gonna continue to help me be successful.”
After a season with a patchwork cornerback room led by Cameron Sutton, the Steelers have crucial depth and flexibility thanks to their offseason additions — and they’re better equipped to match up with some of the dynamic offensive threats in their own division such as Tee Higgins, Ja’Marr Chase and Mark Andrews.
“With wide receivers nowadays being 6-4, 6-5, to have a 6-2, 6-3 corner that can match up with these guys is perfect,” Porter said. “Since the Steelers grabbed both of us, me and Cory, I feel like that’s really going to pan well this season and next season and seasons on.”
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