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The 3-4 and the Steelers’ draft (part 5)

April 05, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

April 5, 2009
By Donald Starver

Note:  This is part 5 in a series.  If you haven’t already read the previous chapters, please click the appropriate link below:

Part 1 (3-4 basics) 

Part 2 (The nose tackle)

Part 3 (The 3-4 defensive end)

Part 4 (The 3-4 linebackers)

In part 5 of our series on the 3-4 defense and how it affects the Steelers’ draft, we will talk about the final component of the 3-4 defense; the secondary.

The secondary consists of 4 positions; the right and left cornerbacks, the strong safety and the free safety.  These positions are known collectively as defensive backs.

The role of the defensive backs in a 3-4 and a 4-3 are basically the same.  Their jobs are to defend against pass plays, and to tackle any runners who might get past the defensive linemen and linebackers.

Based on the situation, the team may bring in a fifth defensive back (the nickel back ).  In other situations, they may bring in a 6th defensive back (the dime back).  There are even situations when a team might bring seven or even eight defensive backs onto the field (like a game-ending ”hail Mary” pass play).  However, these situations are unusual.

Depending on the scheme, the roles of the defensive backs may vary.  For example, some teams play their cornerbacks in primarily man-to-man coverage.  Others may mix in some zone coverage.  Some defenses require their cornerbacks to line up close to the line and jam the receivers as they start their routes.  Others, like the Steelers, tend to play off the line and give receivers lots of cussion.

The Steelers require their defensive backs to play a more integral role in run support than most teams do.  In fact, a cornerback who is not strong in run support probably won’t fare well in Dick LeBeau’s system.

The cornerback is the player who is primarily responsible for guarding the wide receiver.  He has to be able to run stride-for-stride with the fastest receivers, and therefore, they are usually the fastest players on the defense.

The typical cornerback is about 5’10″ tall.  However, as more tall receivers like Randy Moss, Calvin Johnson, and Plaxico Burress emerge, as well as receivers with incredible leaping ability like Larry Fitzgerald, teams will need to find taller cornerbacks to defend them.  The Steelers’ Ike Taylor may be the new prototype, as he has the height, speed, and leaping ability to guard almost any wide receiver in the NFL.

The strong safety usually plays on the tight end’s side of the offensive formation (the “strong” side).  That is why he is called a “strong” safety.  The strong safety is usually the bigger and stronger of the two safeties.  He is also often the slower of the two.  He is often charged with guarding the tight end or any running  back who may leave the backfield.

A good strong safety will often be like a small linebacker on the field.  He will be excellent in run support, and is often known for delivering vicious hits.

The free safety is usually smaller and faster than the strong safety.  He typically lines up further back from the line of scrimmage than the strong safety.  He is usually the last line of defense in the defensive backfield.  He must have the speed and instincts to read long pass plays, and to quickly close the gap between himself and the receiver.  The free safety must also be able to play man-to-man on a wide receiver if the opponent utilizes a third wide receiver.

Interestingly, when you look at what is required of the free safety versus the strong safety, one might argue that former Steeler Anthony Smith was more of a strong safety than a free safety.  However, with Troy Polamalu entrenched at the strong safety position, the Steelers were forced to use Smith as a free safety.  He repeatedly failed to be the “last line of defense” against the New England Patriots, and that ultimately cost him his job.

Looking at this year’s draft class, there are a number of good cornerbacks in the draft, but few top notch safeties.  In fact, safety may be the weakest position in the draft.  There are no elite safeties in this draft, and there may be no safeties taken in the first round.


Malcolm Jenkins (6’0″, 194 lbs.), Ohio State.  Jenkins it probably the top cornerback in the draft.  He has good size, plays a very physical game, and is good in both pass coverage and run support.  He has Pro Bowl potential.

Alphonso Smith (5′ 8 7/8″, 193 lbs.), Wake Forest.  Smith probably has the best coverage skills in the draft.  He has great hands, and rarely gets beat.  However, Smith’s small stature may prevent him from ever being a #1 corner. 

Vontae Davis (6’0″, 205 lbs.), Illinois.  Incredible physical specimen.  Has size, strength, and speed that few cornerbacks can match.  However, Davis’ mental attitude has been questioned.  He has had problems with coaches, and talks non-stop trash.

D.J. Moore (5’10″, 182 lbs.), Vanderbilt.  Moore has great ball skills, but he is slight of build.  Does not play physical, and needs to improve his tackling.  Will probably be more of a #2 corner.  Probably not a good fit for the Steelers’ system, where physicality and run support are mandatory.

Sean Smith (6’2″, 215 lbs.), Utah.  Rare size with long arms.  He lacks top end speed, but has the height to match up against bigger receivers.  He is a converted wide receiver who is still somewhat raw at the CB position.  Teams will fall in love with his size, but his skills need development.

Darius Butler (5’10″, 178 lbs.), Connecticut.  Outstanding athlete who was very impressive at the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine.  He has a thin frame, and struggles to break free from blocks.  He failed to get a single interception his senior year, and that will make some teams wary.  He has the ability to return kicks.  That will work in his favor.


As we mentioned earlier, there are no elite safeties in this draft.  However, here are some of the best that are available.

Louis Delmas (5’11″, 196 lbs.), Western Michigan.  Aggressive hitter with all the skills necessary to cover tight ends or running backs.  Plays much faster than his timed speed.  Played against questionable competition, but a good showing at the Senior Bowl may have made him the first safety to come off the board during the draft.

Rashad Johnson (5’11″, 195 lbs.), Alabama.  Played well in college, but lacks the ideal size for a safety.  Looks more like a cornerback.  Is a smart player who was a leader on his team. 

William Moore (6’0″, 223 lbs.), Missouri.  A big, physical playmaker who is great in run support.  Lacks top level speed, which will probably work against him.  He bites on fakes far too often.  He will need coaching at the next level.

The Steelers’ primary need is for a #2 cornerback to replace Bryant McFadden.  William Gay is already on the roster, but finding an upgrade to him won’t be difficult.    Vontae Davis would look good in black and gold, but his character issues will probably make the Steelers reject him if he is available.  Sean Smith has great physical tools, and would benefit greatly from Mike Tomlin’s DB teaching skills.

At the safety position, the Steelers need to find a replacement for Ryan Clark, who is getting older.   Louis Delmas is likely to be available at #32, but probably won’t last to #64.

To read the other installments in this series, click below:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

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10 Comments to “The 3-4 and the Steelers’ draft (part 5)”

  1. SHAWN FINEGAN says:

    A great read!

  2. Thanks Shawn.

    I’m sure some readers disagreed with my thoughts on some of the draft picks, but I at least hope that some got a better understanding of the Steelers’ defensive scheme from this series.

  3. John #21 says:

    Great info. Based on the Steeler’s needs, do you see them drafting the best (highest rated on their board)of the OT/OL,DE, or CB that is available at #32? Would love to peek at their big board and compare it with mine!

  4. John,
    I’d love to have a peek at that board too.

    IMO, they will definitely take highest rated player at one of the positions that you’ve named. ;-)

    The Steelers have a real need at all 3 spots, so I don’t think that they will be “wrong” if they draft any of those positions. Personally, I would rather see them draft the 2nd best DE, or the 3rd best CB rather than the 7th best OT. I think there is going to be a run on OT’s, so I don’t want them to take one in round one. However, if they took the #1 rated center (Alex Mack), I’d be very happy.

  5. John #21 says:

    I totally agree with your thoughts since we do have some definite areas of need. (Wouldn’t it be a nice dream to see Tyson Jackson still on the board!) Maybe I’m thinking about this selection more so this year because of our picks in ’08, when, IMO, they chose the ‘BAA’(almost) regardless of need. Mack in Rnd 1; Jarron Gilbert; Fili Moala or Darius Butler in Rnd 2 and I’m good. Thanks.

  6. John,
    Yup, I’m right there with you. Mack in round 1 and Moala, Gilbert or Butler in round 2 would be great. Then if we could get Herman Johnson in round 3, it would be a really good day.

    Frankly though, I don’t think the Steelers will take a center in the first round. They tend to think that interior offensive lineman are easy to get in the later rounds. History has actually proven them to be correct. But I still like Mack.

    If they didn’t get Mack, then I could definitely live with Sean Smith in the first round and Gilbert or Moala in the 2nd.

  7. John#21 says:

    We are in agreement. I would not be surprised if they go DB in Rnd 1. Smith is intriguing-shades of old #47! Don’t you believe that there is a good chance of them packaging picks and moving up to get on of “their guys” this year? Realistically, how many spots will there be for rookies on the roster? 4 or 5 max?
    Only 2 more weeks to speculate-enjoy!

  8. Great work on this stuff! This blog is quickly becoming a must read. You’ve done a fantastic job of breaking down the Steelers defensive needs.

    I’d love to see a similar sort of analysis/breakdown from you of the various offensive line positions. That is, what is the difference (in terms of physicality and athletic requirements) between someone who can play Tackle, Guard and Center. You could also further differentiate Left and Right tackles — and whether there’s a difference between LG and RG.

    By the way, I noticed that the Steelers brought in Moala for a visit — maybe they read your blog, too. I’m coming around to your way of thinking that getting a future replacement for “Big Snack” should be a VERY high priority for the team. The need is even amplified by the fact that Hamp’s in the last year of his contract.

    I’d be okay with them grabbing either Moala or J. Gilbert at #32. I’d be even more happy if somehow Vontae Davis fell to them (or if they moved up 10-12 spots to get him, like they did a couple of years ago with Holmes).

    Keep up the great work!

  9. Keith,
    Thanks for the feedback. I really appreciate it.

    I think that doing a series about the offensive positions is a great idea. It’s a lot of work, but a great idea. ;-)

    I was pleasantly surprised when they brought Moala in. I guess they see the same things in him that I do.

    I agree with you about replacing Hampton. Even though Aaron Smith is older, Hampton’s conditioning scares me. Guys his size age in dog years.

    BTW, I think this would be a great year for the Steelers to move up. They don’t have many needs, so there is little need for all of those draft picks. May as well package a few of them and move up.

  10. John,
    I was just commenting to someone else that this would be a great year for the Steelers to move up. They don’t have many needs, and most of their rookies probably won’t be able to make their roster anyway. Why not package a few picks and move up? We’ll have to see what they do.


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