In some sense, the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary carries a similar vibe to last year’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Games where the secondary is battling injuries, leading to a “who?” from fans when they check out the starting lineups. Pittsburgh isn’t as depleted as it was in that game a year ago, when only Terrell Edmunds started among the team’s top four defensive backs, but the Steelers will be without safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Keanu Neal for Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns.
Damontae Kazee will still occupy one-half of the Steelers’ starting safety group. But who will play opposite? It doesn’t look like it’ll be Elijah Riley nor Miles Killbrew. Instead, the team is set to turn to Trenton Thompson. Which begs the question.
Who is Trenton Thompson?
You’d be forgiven if you weren’t sure of the answer. Signed by the Steelers in the middle of training camp, he’s spent the whole season on the practice squad until being elevated to the 53-man roster for last weekend’s game against the Green Bay Packers. Standing on the sidelines for most of the game, he took the field for the team’s final defensive stand to close out the win. Now, he’s set to play a whole lot more than that. Speaking to reporters Friday, Thompson offered some background to his game.
“Rangy. I think just an all-around safety,” he said as shared by The Athletic’s Mike DeFabo earlier today. “I tackle. That’s one thing I’ve always been told. I tackle hard. And I think I’m a pretty good coverage safety. I get the job done.”
After a rash of injuries at safety in camp, Thompson was signed on Aug. 2. Billed as a “camp body” by most who saw the transaction (if you know, we loathe the term around here), Thompson impressed and ran with the opportunity. With good size and athleticism, standing in at 6-1, 200 pounds, we praised him throughout the summer. In our post-camp recap, we concluded:
“A mid-camp add when Cory Trice Jr. landed on IR and Pittsburgh was running out of safeties, Thompson is a fun player to watch. He’s aggressive and flies around the field. A “whoa, not sic ’em” type of player, to borrow the Mike Tomlin phrase. Thompson brings hit power and had a couple big collisions throughout camp and during preseason action.
He can be overaggressive and reckless, which puts him out of position. Thompson had a tendency to miss tackles and take poor angles. But he’s a hair-on-fire player with playmaking skills too, picking off a pass in the preseason from Robber coverage and showed an overall knack for playing the football in the air. He’s someone who caught Mike Tomlin’s eye and should stick on the practice squad.”
Despite inconsistent play, there was enough talent to warrant a practice squad spot and he signed there after being waived by the Steelers as they trimmed their roster to 53. With Fitzpatrick injured in Week Eight and the lines getting thin in the secondary, Pittsburgh elevated Thompson for the Packers game. Surprisingly, he played little on special teams, just two snaps, before entering the game as the sixth defensive back after Neal was injured returning a fourth-quarter interception.
Undrafted out of San Diego State, Thompson has some familiarity with Kazee prior to their time in Pittsburgh. For a season, the two played together at SDSU before Kazee graduated to the NFL and was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons. Sunday, they’ll again take the field together. Before arriving in Pittsburgh, Thompson spent time in 2022 with the New York Giants, appearing in one regular-season game, logging 12 special teams snaps but zero defensively.
Though the Steelers have suffered numerous injuries down the middle of their defense, the Browns certainly won’t be feeling sorry for them. They’ve been dealt a worse hand, losing starting QB Deshaun Watson for the season just as he started to improve his play and show why the franchise made such a heavy investment in him.
In many ways, the battles Sunday look like preseason fodder. Dorian Thompson-Robinson against Trenton Thompson. Mark Robinson against RB Jerome Ford. Such is life in the NFL, especially this far into the season. For the Steelers, there’s no excuses. They beat Tom Brady with Josh Jackson, James Pierre, and Tre Norwood. They’ll try to do the same with Thompson and company this weekend.