Steelers Today - A Pittsburgh Steelers blog


Super Bowl XLV Preview: The Defensive Backs

February 04, 2011 By: Admin Category: Pre-Game Analyses

This is Part 8 of our 9-part Super Bowl XLV Preview series.  In this installment, we’re going to take a look at the defensive backs on both teams.

If you haven’t read the other parts of this series, click the appropriate link below:

Part 1:  Super Bowl XLV Preview -  Team overviews

Part 2:  Super Bowl XLV Preview - The quarterbacks

Part 3:  Super Bowl XLV Preview - The Offensive Lines

Part 4:  Super Bowl XLV Preview - The Receivers

Part 5:  Super Bowl XLV Preview - The Running Backs

Part 6:  Super Bowl XLV Preview - The Defensive Lines

Part 7:  Super Bowl XLV Preview - The Linebackers

Part 8:  Super Bowl XLV Preview - The Defensive Backs

Part 9:  Super Bowl XLV Preview - Putting it all together

I’ve pointed out how evenly matched these two teams are throughout this series.  They’re both very talented.  But the Steelers have a clear advantage at the Running back and linebacker positions.

Well, the Packers enjoy a similar advantage when it come to their defensive backs.  In fact, the Packers may have the best group of defensive backs in the NFL.

Everybody knows about Packers’ cornerback Charles Woodson.  He’s the only collegiate player to ever win the Heisman Trophy as primarily a defensive player.  He’s been a defensive standout for years in the NFL, and was last year’s AP Defensive Player of the Year.

Woodson is no longer the cover cornerback that he once was.  Instead, Packers’ defensive coordinator Dom Capers uses him much like Dick LeBeau uses Troy Polamalu; he’s his secret weapon.  Capers moves him all over the field.  He’s just as likely to blitz as he is to actually cover a receiver.

It may come as a surprise to some, but Woodson is the second best cornerback on the Packers’ team.  The best cornerback on the Packers (in my opinion) is Tramon Williams.

Williams led the Packers in interceptions and passes defensed during the 2010 regular season.  He’s also the NFL’s interception leader in the 2010 post season.  Both Williams and Woodson were named to the Pro Bowl this year (Williams was named as an alternate to replace Philadelphia Eagles’ CB Asante Samuels).

Free safety Nick Collins is also rock solid.  He was named to the Pro Bowl for the 3rd consecutive year in 2010.

Strong safety Charlie Peprah is the most pedestrian member of this group.  He’s competent, but not outstanding.  But with 3 Pro Bowl caliber defensive backs in the Packers’ starting lineup, somebody has to be the weak link.

Dom Capers likes to use lots of nickel and dime packages.  When he does, the Packers’ backup DB’s also do a very good job.

The strength of their defensive backs is one of the key reasons Green Bay’s defense was ranked #5 in the NFL against the pass.  They limited opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of only 67.2 this season.  That ranked #1 in the NFL.  Moreover, their 24 interceptions was 2nd best in the NFL.

The Steelers’ defensive backs are the exact opposite of the Packers’.  Instead of having 3 Pro Bowl players and a weak link at strong safety, the Steelers have a Pro Bowl strong safety, and less talented players at the other 3 DB positions.

Strong safety Troy Polamalu was recently named 2010 AP Defensive Player of the Year.  He’s obviously the Steelers’ superstar defensive back.  Need we say any more about him?

Ike Taylor is still a very good cornerback.  He’s much better than he gets credit for.  He’s the guy who will probably be shadowing Greg Jennings on Sunday.  If Ike could catch, he might even have a Pro Bowl or two to his credit.  But Ike has hands of stone, so he’ll never be given the credit that he deserves for defending the opponent’s best receiver week after week.

Bryant McFadden is the weak link among the Steelers’ starting DB’s.  He runs hot or cold.  Mostly cold.  He’s great in run defense (which is important when you play cornerback for the Steelers), but he’s scary to watch in pass defense.  If you polled Steelers fans about which starter on the defense they’d like to see replaced next season, McFadden would probably be the unanimous choice.

His back-up, William Gay, isn’t much better.  He has played very well this season as the nickel back.  He’s even made some game-saving plays this year (like his touchdown against the NY Jets in the AFC Championship).  However, I don’t think there are many Steelers fans who want to see him in a starting role.

Free safety Ryan Clark is the final member of the Steelers starting defensive backfield.  He’s a solid player who is an excellent complement to Troy Polamalu.  Clark is not Pro Bowl caliber, but he’s dependable, and it’s that dependability that allows Troy to roam the way that he does.  Clark has good hands, and can make interceptions when needed.  But Clark is probably best known for delivering the most vicious hits among the Steelers’ defensive backs.  Just ask Wes Welker.

The Packers have a clear advantage in pure talent among their defensive backs.  However, even the most talented DB will have difficulty when the Steelers start playing sandlot football.  It’s going to be interesting to see how the Packers handle that situation.  It may well be what determines who wins the game on Sunday.

(If you enjoyed this article, please consider leaving a comment by clicking on the square at the top right of this article. Also, please subscribe to our blog by pressing the orange button below. You can also follow us on Twitter by clicking the bird doohicky below. Also consider following us on Facebook. Thanks.)

Subscribe in a reader

Top                NFL Fan Sites


14 Comments to “Super Bowl XLV Preview: The Defensive Backs”

  1. This is starting to get ridiculous. The Steelers do not have a poor pass defense and GB’s is not significantly better. Now, don’t misunderstand me, GB DOES have an excellent secondary (#1 is many stats such as defensive passer rating and negative pass play %). But the Steelers were #2 in defensive passer rating and # 1 in opponent yards per attempt (GB was 3rd).

    Belive it or not, they both have excellent pass defenses - and PB’s is not based solely on pressuring the QB. Their DB’s do their jobs. Yes, we would all prefer that McFadden and Gay were better but they don’t give up too many big plays and they are targetted primarily because the others are that good.

    I found the following on ESPN:
    The Steeler’s D vs. 3+ wide receiver formations during the 2010 season, including playoffs:
    Cmp. pct. - 59.6
    Yds/att. - 5.9
    TD-Int. - 9-15
    Passer Rtg. - 69.1 (2nd to Packers)

    The Steelers held opposing quarterbacks to the second-lowest passer rating in the league this season when facing at least three receivers. They allowed nine touchdown passes and had 15 interceptions in those situations. And even when we filter that number to four or more wide receivers, we find the Steelers have held up well.

    The Steeler’s D vs. 4+ wide receiver formations
    Completions: 21
    Attempts: 39
    Pct. 53.8
    Yards: 235
    TD: 1
    INT: 2
    Sacks: 3
    Rating: 61.4

    So, let’s get a grip. The GB secondary is sightly better than PB’s but the difference is not that significant.

  2. Good post Don.

    John, I couldn’t disagree with you more. After Troy, not one PIT secondary player would even sniff the field in GB’s nickel package. Not one. Yes, GB’s secondary is that good.

    Your stats are nice, but the fact is that you played 3 outstanding QB’s this year. (I’m including Ryan because I’m nice - he is a debatable elite QB). You got absolutely lit up by Brady and Brees, and those two don’t have quite as much firepower when it comes to WR’s as does GB. If AR gets adequate time, you should be VERY scared.

    This is a HUGE advantage for GB. If PIT doesn’t run the ball well, it’s gonna be pretty tough to get significant yards through the air. The only way would be to PIT 4/5 WR’s in a scramble drill.

    On the other side, I (and most national pundits too) see PIT’s only chance to stuff GB’s high powered passing attack is to get to AR before he can get the ball out. Can they do it? We shall see.

  3. C’mon now, John. I know that when we start doing our draft analysis during the off-season, you are going to say that the Steelers need to focus on cornerbacks and offensive linemen. You know it too. That’s because we can use an upgrade at cornerback. There’s nothing to be ashamed of for admitting that.

    Every offensive coordinator in the league knows that the “book” on how to beat Pittsburgh is to spread them out and take advantage of the cornerbacks. Heck, everybody that they’ve interviewed over the past 2 weeks has been saying the exact same thing.

    That doesn’t mean that the Steelers’ DB’s are garbage. It simply means that the D-line and linebackers are so elite that nobody can run on them. At least teams have a chance against our DB’s.

    Frankly, all any of us can do is speculate. Statistically speaking, the Steelers shouldn’t have been able to run on the Jets last week. But they did. That proves that statistics are pretty useless once the whistle blows.

    If any of us really knew what was going to happen, we’d move to Vegas and gamble for a living. But since we don’t, we look at what’s happened in the past, and we try to predict what will happen in the future.

    I think you took the article more negatively than it was actually written. If I remember correctly, DB is the first position where I’ve given the Packers a decided advantage. Can’t they even be given credit for being better at one position?

    I’m trying to be unbiased. But I never said that the Steelers’ pass defense sucks. But relatively speaking, it is our weak link (along with our injured offensive line).

  4. First off, stats are not useless. They are important as they show relative strengths and weaknesses of a team but, I agree, one has to realize that every game is different and outcomes are not determined by past stats. That is how the Jets can be blown away by NE in one game and then come back to beat them handily a few weeks later.

    I agree that I came across too strong. I think I was reacting to what some pundits have been saying as well - they tend to overlook the “relative” part of the equation. My point was to simply show that our pass defense does not suck and, in fact, is statistically only slightly behind GB’s. I agree that the “book” has been that you spread PB out and their weak secondary will be exposed. I was merely pointing out that the “book” does not always work. Overall this year, PB has done quite well against 3 & 4 receiver sets. Yes, they had a very bad game against NE but I think some people are overreacting because of it.

    Second, yes Don, I will say that they need to address O-line and CB in the draft (as well as D-Line depth). As you point out in your reply, this is not because our CB’s are poor but because they are a “realtive” weak spot as compared to the rest of the defense.

    Bearmeat, I metioned before that “yes” I do believe GB’s secondary is better than PB’s. I am just saying that the difference is not as large as people seem to beleive. I must disagree with you on one thing, Ike would be starting in the GB nickel - he is that good of a cover man. I would like to have a young guy like Shields on my team. He has a bright future but he is not as good as Ike right now. Heck, I would say Ike is just as good of a cover man as Woodson currently is.

    Second, you can’t have it both ways. The reason given that GB’s run defense appears poor is that they primarily play in the Nickel. That’s a legitimate reason but it is also a legitimate reason as to why their pass defense appears so good.

    As for elite QB’s, as mentioned before, the whole defense had a bad game against NE. Against Brees, they kept him under control until late in the 3rd quarter but overall, he had a good game too. GB has faced what…one elite QB? Brady did pretty good against them as well (considering he was only on the field for 19 minutes). So, what’s your point? If GB plays in the Nickel, yes it will be hard to pass but it will be easier to run. If they play the base, it will be easier to pass but harder to run.

  5. @John - Thanks for clarifying. And I agree with you on all points.

    @Bearmeat - John is right. Ike Taylor would start in the Packers’ nickel. He’d probably start in their base line-up. Ike is a tremendous athlete. He’s 6’2, and he runs like a deer. He always gets matched up 1-on-1 against the opposition’s best receiver. Whether it’s Anquan Boldin, or T.O., or Larry Fitzgerald, or Andre Johnson, or Calvin Johnson, or Randy Moss, Ike is covering them.

    He has a vertical leap that’s over 40 inches. So if you needed someone to go 1-on-1 with Randy Moss, who would you choose, Ike or Tramon?

    No receivers ever seem to have great games against Ike. He’s great at coverage, but he can’t catch. If he could, he’d be recognized as one of the best receivers in the league. But he can’t, so he has a woefully low number of interceptions. And unfortunately, most people measure cornerbacks by how many interceptions they get, and not by how many top quality receivers they shut down.

  6. Ok John. Fair enough. You are right about the debate between nickel/straight 34 D that GB runs. If they run nickel, they’re more susceptible against the run. If they run straight 3/4, then the reverse will be true.

    Something I read that Capers has done in the past is a 3-3-5 or “corner okie”. It treats Woodson as the 4th LB in place of Walden/Zombo to generally create havoc and help stop the run.

    Another option is playing single high safety (Collins) in centerfield and putting Shields in for Peprah. That protects against the pass while still keeping 3 DL on the field. Both good options that I wouldn’t be surprised to see.

    Taylor is a solid corner. Not anything special. Solid. I would argue that all three corners for GB are spectacular. (and no, I really don’t think I’m being a homer). If you want to talk about stats, Shields has given up exactly 3 passes of more than 15 yds this entire year. Including the playoffs. And that’s with offenses scheming to get away from Tramon and Wood. He’s got two picks and a lot (I don’t know the # offhand) pass breakups. He’s gone head to head against D. Jackson, R. White, S. Rice, etc..)

    Beyond that, Shields’ speed is exactly what GB needs. They’ve already got a lockdown cover corner in Tramon, and a spectacular rover in Wood. Collins has speed and Peprah is a good in the box safety. Adding Shields’ speed at corner fits the doctors’ orders just right.

    And GB has played M. Vick 2x and absolutely kept him pinned down passing the ball (and for the most part running). They shut down BUF (who I believe PIT really struggled to stop through the air). They shut out NYJ. They kept Cutler completely ineffective 3x. Kept Brady to 2 offensive scores. Shut down Matty Ice 2x, and destroyed Eli Manning.

    The only big names I see missing from that list are Big Ben, P. Manning and Brees. Arguably Rivers.

    I see PIT went against Brady, Brees and Ryan. No one else. Certainly not Palmer or Flacco. And they got destroyed by Brady and Brees, and Ryan was in week 1.

    You can call me a homer or crazy if you want, but I’m really confident that GB will be able to move the ball consistently through the air, and PIT will struggle.

    I think most people not attached to this game (No PIT/GB fans, or foes of either team) would say the same thing.

  7. Oh, and by the way, Tramon is 5’11 and has a 43″ vertical.. so I’d pick Tramon :)

  8. I guess I have a much shorter list of elite QB’s than you do. I would put Brady, Manning, Brees, Ben, Rivers, and Rogers in that list. So no, I do not include Vick, Cutler, or Ryan in that list anymore than I do Palmer or Flacco.

    On Buffalo, GB faced Edwards (who ended up getting cut by them). Buffalo rushed 32 times for 124 yds and only passed 18 times. Against Pitt, Fitzpatrick played and they only rushed 17 times while passing 45 times. Pitt held him to ~50% completion rate and a QB rating of 67.4. I wouldn’t call that really struggling.

    I have no doubt Rogers will get his yards and be successful at times. It isn’t possible to stop an elite QB for the entire game (unless you knock him out of it). This will be partly due, however, from the fact GB won’t be able to run and will have to pass most of the time. At the end of the day, the GB’s score will depend on how successful Pitt is at getting pressure and making GB settle for FG’s instead of TD’s. On Pitt’s side, yes GB has a good pass defense but can they stop the run without weakening it. You list some of the options they have and I think one of the most enjoyable things about this SB will be watching what gameplans LeBeau and Capers come up with.

    If Pitt runs well, that opens up play action and as fast as Shields may be, I haven’t seen anyone with the game speed that Wallace posseses. They will have to double team Wallace which could open up Sanders, Brown, or Ward. And then there is the big X-factor in the Pitt passing game. GB has been susceptible to TE’s and Heath Miller is one of the best in the game. None of your LB’s can cover him.

    Unless Pitt runs so well they do not have to pass, they will get their passing yards too.

    The gameplan will have some effect if the coaches come up with some wrinkle the other side cannot figure out or stop. Overall, however, its going to come down to individual matchups. The Pitt OLB’s against the GB Tackles, whoever covers Wallace vs Wallace, Ike vs Jennings, the GB DL vs the Pitt OL, Matthews vs Scott (that one doesn’t fill me with confidence), Rogers vs Troy….etc.

    There are enough very skilled players on both sides that the end result will simply be who makes the most plays.

  9. Bearmeat,
    Actually, Tramon Williams has good game speed. But he’s not really that fast. He only ran a 4.59 at the NFL Combine. He improved that to 4.57 on his pro day. That’s part of the reason there was little interest in him coming out of college. They thought his lack of speed was a problem. He’s kind of like players like Jerry Rice, Hines Ward, and Emmit Smith. They can get it done in the game, but they’re not track stars.

    Ike Taylor, on the other had IS a track star. He has the second fastest 40 time of any cornerback in the NFL. The only current cornerback who has ever been clocked faster than him is DeAngelo Hall. Hall ran a 4.15, and Ike ran a 4.18.

    Mike Wallace is faster than every player on the Packers’ roster, but he’s the 2nd fastest player on the Steelers’ roster. Wallace ran a 4.28 at the Combine. Nobody on the Packers’ has ever come close to that.

    Also, Tramon Williams’ vertical jump was 37.5 inches at the combine. Ike’s vertical is 43 inches. So I think a 6’2″ guy with a 43 inch vertical and 4.18 speed definitely trumps a 5’11″ guy with a 37 inch vertical and 4.59 speed.

    Ike was extremely raw when the Steelers drafted him. Moreover, he came from a very low profile school. But his athleticism was so off the charts that the Steelers decided to draft him and teach him how to play the game.

    But the bottom line is that none of this is going to matter. The only thing that will matter is what is going to happen on the field on Sunday. Once the game is over, then we’ll all see whose prediction is correct.

  10. John -

    I actually don’t think we’re arguing over much here - semantics really.

    Here’s your money quotes

    1. …” At the end of the day, the GB’s score will depend on how successful Pitt is at getting pressure ”

    I absolutely agree with you.

    2. ….” (speaking of GB) some of the options they have and I think one of the most enjoyable things about this SB will be watching what gameplans LeBeau and Capers come up with.”

    Again, I couldn’t say it better myself.

    3. “Unless Pitt runs so well they do not have to pass, they will get their passing yards too.”

    Don’t get me wrong. I am not stating that GB will pitch a shutout against Big Ben and the WR/TE’s. All the players are pros and in the super bowl for a reason: They are good players! PIT will get yards, I just don’t think it will be significant yards unless they can run the ball devastatingly well. (kind of like your argument about GB’s run offense vs PIT’s run D). ;)

    Where I do disagree with you are these points:

    ” as fast as Shields may be, I haven’t seen anyone with the game speed that Wallace posseses.”

    I am going to say the same thing about Shields as you did about Wallace. Just because we ‘haven’t seen anyone run with either of them doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Shields is sub 4.3 fast. Just like Wallace. We’ll see who wins. Anyone who says “I know” is a liar. We don’t know. We’re just going to have to wait and watch and hold our breath.

    Also here:

    “I guess I have a much shorter list of elite QB’s than you do. I would put Brady, Manning, Brees, Ben, Rivers, and Rogers in that list.”

    Vick was an elite QB this year. Cutler is not. And if Ryan is not that means your D didn’t hole ONE elite QB in check ALL YEAR. That should scare you, and if it doesn’t you are in denial or need your head checked.

    And then you finish up with these gems that I completely agree with:

    “Overall, however, its going to come down to individual matchups…. There are enough very skilled players on both sides that the end result will simply be who makes the most plays…..


    You are a smart football fan. I respect that about most PIT fans… much better than MIN, DAL or CHI fans at any rate..

  11. Don -

    Was James Harrison the same player with the same athleticism when he came out of college? Or has he gotten better? (rolls eyes)

    Of course he’s not even close to the same guy. I’d be willing to bet he’s faster, stronger and smarter.

    It’s the same with Tramon. His vertical, strength, speed and smarts have improved exponentially since GB picked him up 4 years ago. His vertical is over “40 now. And his speed, while not sprinter speed, is perfectly fine. There’s a reason he’s been included in conversations with Nnadi Asmogha, Darelle Revis, Charles Woodson and Champ Bailey. He’s that good.

    I didn’t know Ike was that fast - good for him. Why isn’t he talked about more? Is his coverage not great? You’ve already mentioned he can’t catch, so that partially explains it. I’ll be the first to admit I’m wrong if I am - but I really haven’t ever seen Taylor make plays, and all the media (from national and local WI, say that he’s just average).

    And as for Shields - he ran a 4.21 at the U in Miami his junior year. And a 4.23 his senior year. And then a 4.31 at the combine (he had pulled a hamstring a couple months beforehand). All the GB brass and players say that he’s the fastest player they’ve ever seen. Again, call me a homer if you want, but I don’t see a matchup disadvantage for GB here.

    Bottom line is that you are right on in your last sentence. I think I’m right. You think you are. Neither of us really “knows” right now, but we’ll see.

    If you put a gun to my head and demanded what I really thought about this game it would be this:

    GB has a big skill position advantage on both sides of the ball, and a very slight O and D Line advantage. The QB’s are a push, and PIT has a big LB, TE and RB advantage. PIT also has the experience and coaching advantage because they’ve been there before and won it all before. The indoor speed track favors GB. ST is a wash.

    I’d pick GB 24-21. But I very well could be wrong. The only idiots in this whole charade are the ones who are saying it’s going to be a blowout.

  12. The Steelers pass defense is very good. Several of the Steelers DB’s are not very good. How do you solve the paradox? Dick LeBeau. We [Steeler fans] all saw Gay get burned to a crisp by Gronkowski over and over; we saw Boldin light up McFadden in the first Ravens game (or was it second?) this season. Very few quarterbacks have had any success against the Steelers, though, because LeBeau is great at protecting these guys and not asking them to do stuff they just can’t. Obviously, there is only so much you can hide them and against a spread formation of good WR’s it’s hard. Even NO wasn’t able to do it all game, though; they only put up 20 points. And NE was running this crazy stuff with two dynamic pass catching TE’s; how do you defend that?

    As good as GB’s pass defense is, they don’t really have an answer for Heath Miller, and that’s a problem. If they’re forced to put a safety on him, that takes away coverage from the receivers. The Steelers are arguably the most dangerous big play passing team in the league. Look at the numbers, #2 in passes over 20 yards, #6 in passes over 40, and that’s with the 6th fewest att in the league. Oh, yeah, the Steelers are also #2 in the league in yds/att. Plus, those stats actually under-represent the Steelers true play-making capacity because they include the early part of the season where we were playing with Dixon and Batch as QB and before Sanders and Brown had developed at WR. I don’t care who the CB’s are, against the Steelers you want your safeties deep as much as possible.

  13. Bearmeat,
    You’re right. Players DO improve. Tramon Williams is a MUCH better player now than he was when he came out of college. Despite Charles Woodson being last year’s DPOY, I have publicly acknowledged that Tramon Williams is a better cornerback. I’ve also stated that Green Bay has the advantage at defensive back.

    The only thing that I took exception to was you shortchanging Ike Taylor. It became obvious to me that you had never really paid attention to Ike or you’d know that his athleticism is off the charts. But sadly, Ike can’t catch. So he has one of the lowest career interception totals of any starting cornerback in the NFL. He definitely gets penalized for that. After all, we all expect cornerbacks to get interceptions, and Ike can’t do that. He’ll bat the ball away, but he won’t catch it.

    Ike has a RARE combination of size, speed, and leaping ability. If he could catch, he’d be in the Pro Bowl every year.

    Just watch how well he plays Greg Jennings. You’ll see. He’s going to stick with him every second of the way. But Aaron Rodgers can still afford to gamble on passes to Jennings because Ike is not going to intercept the ball. :-(

  14. Allright - Obviously I don’t know enough of Mr. Taylor. I guess we’ll have to see.

    Fortunately for me (and unfortunately for you) GB has many, many other great weapons. If Greg Jennings only gets 20 yards receiving tomorrow, then that means to me that Driver/Jones/Nelson/Quarless went off…

    And Matt, we’re gonna have to agree to disagree. GB’s secondary has been lights out all year. Not gonna change now. They’re too good. I don’t care who they’re facing, and PIT’s WR’s don’t scare me any more than PHI’s or NE’s did - and look what GB did to them! (6 combined TD’s over 3 games)


Leave a Reply