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The Steelers’ Challenges (Part 2)

March 06, 2010 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

This is part 2 of a series on the Pittsburgh Steelers off-season challenges.  In part 1, we discussed the Steelers’ safeties.    In this installment, we are going to take a look at the Steelers’ cornerbacks.

The cornerback position was definitely a weak link in the defense.  Quarterbacks feasted on the Steelers cornerbacks all season.  Moreover, much ado was made about the fact that the Steelers cornerbacks had not accumulated a single interception for most of the season.  In fact, their first interception didn’t occur until the very last game of the season.  That is an almost unheard of statistic in the NFL.

The Steelers’ interception total was 25th in the NFL last season.  The prior season, they had 20 interceptions and were 6th in the NFL.

The Steelers’ defense went from being #1 against the pass in 2008 to #16 in 2009.  That’s a big drop.  They went from giving up 23 passes of 20+ yards in 2008 (best in the NFL) to giving up 46 of them in 2009 (15th in the NFL).

As I mentioned in part 1 of this series, a defensive backfield is an interdependent unit.  Each piece relies on the others.  If one component is out of place, the others have to compensate, which takes them out of place as well.

It is obvious that Troy Polamalu’s injuries had a significant impact on the secondary.  I already showed that Ryan Clark actually had a very good season in Troy’s absence.  But the cornerbacks weren’t so lucky.

Ike Taylor had his worst season since becoming a starter.  He had fewer total tackles than he’s ever had.  He had his lowest number of passes defensed, and he tied for his lowest interception total.  All in all, it wasn’t a good season for Ike.

But Ike has been one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL for some time now.  He has regularly matched up against the best receivers in the NFL and held his own.  I am not prepared to write off Ike Taylor just yet.

William Gay, on the other hand, is a different story.  Gay seemed to be targeted on a weekly basis by opposing quarterbacks.  He got burned so often, I started thinking that he was microwave popcorn.  He was the first starting cornerback for the Steelers to record no interceptions in a very long time.

Gay’s number of passes defensed was much lower than what Deshea Townsend averaged back when he was the starter.  Moreover, his number of tackles was much higher.  This was indicative of the fact that receivers were catching far more passes against Gay, so he was getting more opportunities to make tackles.

CB William Gay

Going into 2010, Gay is going to have to improve his performance, or he will have to be removed from the starting line-up.

What should the Steelers do?

The Steelers aren’t likely to make any major changes through free agency.  It’s not their style.  Besides, Dunta Robinson has already been signed by the Atlanta Falcons.  Lito Sheppard is still out there, but the Steelers won’t sign him.  The Patriots’ Leigh Bodden would also be an upgrade, but the Steelers won’t sign him either.  None of the other free agents are particularly interesting.

The Steelers spent two draft picks last season on cornerbacks, so it is hard to imagine them taking one in the first round this year.  However, if there is one thing that I’ve learned about the Steelers, it’s that it is impossible to guess what they will do in the draft.

Should the Steelers decide to select a cornerback, there are a few that might be attractive in the draft.  A handful of them might even be able to step in and contribute right away.

Joe Haden (Florida) - Haden is widely considered to be the best cornerback in the draft.  He ran a slower than expected time at the NFL Scouting Combine, and has dropped on some draft boards.  This might actually make it possible for Haden to still be available when the Steelers make their selection at pick #18.  If he is available, the Steelers should definitely consider taking him.

Kyle Wilson (Boise State) - Wilson is not good enough to be taken at pick #18, but if he is still available in the second round, he would be a nice pick for the Steelers.  Wilson’s ball skills are not stellar, but he is a very good athlete who is very capable in run support (which is important in the Steelers’ system).

Patrick Robinson (Florida State) - Like Wilson, Robinson is not good enough to be selected at pick #18, but he would be a nice second round selection.  Robinson is a gifted athlete who has relied on his athleticism, and has not put enough time into developing proper technique.  That worked at the college level, but may not work in the NFL.  Robinson is athletic enough to shadow most NFL receivers.  He is probably the most “boom or bust” cornerback in the draft.

Perrish Cox (Oklahoma State) - Cox is a talented athlete with nice size and speed.  Like the previous 2 cornerbacks mentioned, he would be a second round consideration, but not a first rounder.  Cox led the NCAA with 19 passes defensed, but character issues may scare the Steelers away (Cox was suspended from the Cotton Bowl for missing curfew).

Personally, I believe that the biggest impact in the Steelers’ defensive backfield is going to be due to improvement by last year’s draft picks.  Joe Burnett and Keenan Lewis both have a lot of potential.  They will each have a full year in Dick LeBeau’s system under their belts, and should be much more capable of contributing than they were last year.


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10 Comments to “The Steelers’ Challenges (Part 2)”

  1. John#21 says:

    Cornerback may be the most physically difficult position to play - especially with the rule changes that so favor the WRs. While physical attributes (speed, height, weight, etc.) are important (please no more 5’9″ CB’s) the intangibles (instincts; ability to learn & adapt) may be the most critical. Unfortunately, it is much harder to evaluate. I believe both of our corners (taylor & gay) are not instinctive corners. Taylor didn’t play corner until late in his college career and gay, well, you saw what I saw! We are down to the Steeler coaching staff’s ability to evaluate players and game film and choose impact players. Again, our track recoerd outside of round 1 in this area is questionable. I agree that we will be looking at drafting a corner in round 2 or later. Also consider D. McCourty, and K. Jackson & if you like your corners a bit taller C.Cook (6’2″). Let’s hope that Lewis steps up and grabs the starting position and Burnett plays a strong nickel. That way, whoever we draft is not immediately pressed into action. Regardless, we need a significant improvement in this link of our Dee-fence!

  2. John#21 says:

    A bit off topic, but, is there any buzz in Pittsburgh about bring in Randle El? I know it’s all about $ but it also has to be about who can contribute! Arnaz Battle! Get serious!IMO way too early to give up on Sweed. I digress…

  3. John#21,
    Great comments. You are exactly right about cornerback. There are different types of cornerbacks. The steelers have to decide which type they want.

    Ike Taylor is a tall corner who is a great athlete who can cover any receiver in the game. However, he has no hands. He just isn’t going to create turnovers. But at least he can keep the other guy from catching the ball.

    Some corners are great at run coverage. I think Bryant McFadden excelled in this area.

    Some corners are not super fast and are better used in zone coverage like a Cover 2 scheme. I actually think that Deshea falls into that category.

    But with William Gay, I’m not sure where his greatest strengths lie. Based on last year, it looks like he might not have any strengths. :-(

    I have a good feeling about Burnett and Lewis. They both looked good in training camp, and I think they will contribute this year. I actually think Lewis even has the potential to contribute at safety if he studies to learn the position.

    As far as Randle El, I think I’d pass on him. In my opinion, he was nothing more than a return man who was good for a few gadget plays every now and then. The Redskins overpaid him, and he never lived up to that contract.

    I like the Steelers’ current receivers, and wouldn’t want to add Randle El to the mix. And like you, I still haven’t given up on Limas Sweed. I still remember how many balls Nate Washington dropped before things finally came together for him.

  4. > I already showed that Ryan Clark actually had a very good season in Troy’s absence.

    Well, you listed some stats. I’m not sure why they would be convincing. There are lots of bad reasons why stats can be racked up. For example, a successful defense will generate fewer tackles overall, so “career high in tackles” might not have anything to do with playing well at all.

    Instead of stats, you need to look at each play and ask if Clark did his job. I don’t have access to the game film, but unfortunately, for many fans he did not pass the eyeball test in 2009, not by a long stretch. Personally, I found Clark last year to be ok in run support but consistently out of position, slow, and unable to locate the ball when pass defending.

    You said he “quietly had the best season of his career”, but perhaps it was quiet because of the lack of impact plays we desperately needed in the 4th quarter of many games — plays that Clark never made despite repeated opportunities.

  5. Alegre,
    Interesting perspective. i just happen to not agree with it.

    The entire Steelers defense looked bad last year. James Farrior looked slow. Lawrence Timmons disappeared for long stretches. James Harrison didn’t look particularly dominant. Ike Taylor looked like a terrible cornerback. William Gay looked even worse. And Ryan Clark looked out of place at times.

    But how much of it was the individual’s fault, and how much of it was a collective domino effect. Aaron Smith was out and the line didn’t get enough pressure which made the secondary work harder. Troy was gone which made the secondary weaker. William Gay appeared lost out there which made the rest of the secondary have to help out.

    So how much was each individual responsible for? Ike has always been reliable, so I am not willing to write him off. James Harrison too. Same with Ryan Clark. But William Gay did seem to be a weak link. And James Farrior seemed slow. Just my opinion.

    Hopefully, with Troy and Aaron back, everyone else will return to their former level of play. We shall see.

  6. Donald,

    You sound like a seasoned politician when it comes to CBs and Safeties making tackles. You considered it a bad thing that Ike had fewer tackles and considered it a bad thing that Gay had more tackles. You do recognize that it is a bad thing for DBs to have a bunch of tackles as in your comments about Gay. But when it comes to Ike you ignore that fact. Is one a republican and the other a democrat? :)

    As a rule I believe DBs should have low tackles but even then I understand run support and tackles after a short catch are factored in as well. Sometimes, tackles as a stat for DBs can be as misleading as a stat at the combine (which again is stupid).

    Said all that to say this: I’m 100% with you on what happened to the defence last year. Aaron Smith and Troy both out at the same time was a pefect storm. Get to the QB a half step sooner and everything is different. Look at how many times the secondary got burned when a black and gold uniform was breathing down the QB’s neck.

    I feel alone at tiimes when it comes to our defence. I have no worries there. I don’t blame them for last year. I do blame circumstances maybe. My concern remains the same as it was over the past two seasons: O-Line and our running game. Ben is going to have his sacks regardless but protection schemes still can be improved and certainly the running lanes can be widened. Ben will never learn when to get rid of the ball but then does Ben learn anything?

    We may need to draft a QB. Ben is making Jeff Reed look more attractive every time he steps into another club. He’s becoming an embarassment. And that is sad because I love our QB. Can’t making excuses for him though.

  7. Tony,
    Well I am preparing to make a run for the presidency in 2012. Gotta start practicing.

    The problem with Ike this year wasn’t his low tackle total. It was his low passes defensed total and his lack of interceptions (which is kind of normal with Ike).

    I just don’t believe that the Steelers’ defense could go from being one of the best of all times in 2008 to being terrible in 2009 without some other factors being responsible.

    Time will tell, but I am willing to give them a pass for the 2009 season. I still believe that Ike and Ryan Clark are good players. But I if they don’t show that in 2010, then I will be the first to admit that I was wrong.

  8. John#21 says:

    Wow- a big day for the Steelers! All the deals get done. Welcome back to Clark and Randl El! Hope that Allen at Safety can help us. Thanks to Tyrone Carter - but it was time. Lastly, does Arnaz Battle make us better at WR? I know he is a hard worker-hope that he is a strong Special Teams player-that will make him popular in Pittsburgh. Hopefully this is the first of many good days for the BnG in 2010. Well done K Colbert!

  9. Donald,

    I agree.

  10. I don’t see the Steelers going CB in the first unless Joe Haden drops past 15. If there’s anything that characterizes the Steelers front office, it is that they don’t make knee-jerk reactions. They didn’t go out and draft OL in the first and second rounds after Faneca left and things fell apart, and they aren’t going to make a big effort to revamp the secondary after Polamlu’s injury through things out of whack. This is especially true considering they’ve already been addressing this situation. We have a 3rd year corner in Gay and two 2nd year men with Lewis and Burnett to develop before we start reaching for corners.

    As you said, the value is really in the second round, and I would particularly highlight Robinson since the Steelers have a history of success with FSU defensive backs. Myron Rolle, the Rhodes Scholar safety is another FSU product that might draw the Steelers’ attention in the mid to late rounds.


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