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Will Steelers’ 2011 cornerbacks be better than 2010?

September 06, 2011 By: Admin Category: Players, training camp

Most Steelers fans would probably agree that the team’s weakness over the past few years has been their cornerbacks.  Some would even argue that the weakness at cornerback is what cost the Steelers another ring in  Super Bowl XLV.

In Super Bowl XLV, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers used a formula that is becoming the template for beating the Steelers.   They used 3, and even 4, wide receivers to spread the Steelers’ defense.  They focused on the passing game, knowing that running on the Steelers’ defense is basically futile.  They picked on Bryant McFadden early and often.   And they took advantage of mismatches against the Steelers’ 3rd and 4th cornerbacks.

This wasn’t a new battle plan.  The New England Patriots have used this formula for years against the Steelers.  In fact, I remember one game several years ago in which Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw the ball on over 90% of the offensive plays.  They used short passes to Wes Welker as their de facto running game.  The Patriots understood that running on the Steelers is almost impossible, but passing against them is relatively easy.

We’re less than a week away from the first game of the 2011 season, and the obvious question is,  “Have the Steelers strengthened the cornerback position?”

To answer that question, we have to look at the Steelers’ roster at cornerback.  The starters at cornerback in 2010 were Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden.  According to the Steelers’ current depth chart, the two starter for the 2011 season opener will be………..Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden.  The only difference will be that both players will be a year older, and Ike Taylor will be playing with a broken thumb.  Yikes!

The Steelers’ 3rd and 4th cornerback in 2010 were William Gay and Keenan Lewis.  Neither player inspired much confidence in Steelers fans.  Gay would occasionally make great plays.  But he was just as likely to get burned for a touchdown.  And Lewis seemed to be such a knucklehead that his mental errors offset his significant physical tools.

So what have the Steelers done to upgrade their nickel and dime defenses?  According to the Steelers’ current depth chart, the 3rd and 4th cornerbacks in 2011 are ……..William Gay and Keenan Lewis.  Are you starting to see a pattern here?

Admittedly, Lewis has looked a little better than he did last year, but William Gay looks like the exact same guy.

William Gay gets burned....again.

In 2010, the Steelers’ 5th & 6th cornerbacks were Anthony Madison and Crezdon Butler.  But the truth is that Madison was used almost exclusively as a special teams ace, and Butler saw about as much playing time as I did.  In other words, they were both non-factors in the Steelers’ defense.

So how have the Steelers upgraded their 5th & 6th cornerbacks for 2011.  Butler and Madison are both gone, and they’ve been replaced by two rookies; Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen.  Both Brown and Allen were hurt for much of training camp and the preseason, so neither got on the field very often.  So in essence, the Steelers kept two rookies who have little chance of seeing any action this year.  In other words, Brown and Allen are likely to be non-factors, just like Butler and Madison before them.

Simply based on physical tools, I would say that Brown and Allen have an advantage over Butler and Madison.  But until they translate their physical tools into actual on-field play, it’s hard to determine whether they’ll ultimately be better than Crezdon Butler and Anthony Madison.

So, it seems that the Steelers have 4 cornerbacks who are likely to see the majority of the playing time, just like in 2010.  In fact, the 4 cornerbacks are the exact same guys.

Only time will tell if the Steelers’ cornerbacks will perform better in 2011 than they did in 2010.  But the fact that the first 4 guys on the roster are exactly the same, doesn’t leave me with a whole lot of optimism.

Someone once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.  For the Steelers’ sake, let’s all pray that he was wrong.

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Steelers select DB Cortez Allen in 4th round

April 30, 2011 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

With the 128th pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select Cortez Allen, a 6’1″, 197 lb. cornerback from The Citadel.

Cortez Allen has to be considered a project for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  He played at a smaller program, and doesn’t have the experience of playing against top-tier talent like players from more prestigious football programs do.  However, there are a few things about Allen that stand out.

The first thing that stands out to me is that Allen attended The Citadel, a military school.  In my opinion, that immediately eliminates any doubt as to whether he’s going to be disciplined, or if he’s going to work hard.  You don’t graduate from the Citadel without lots of hard work and discipline.

The second thing that stands out is the fact that he was team captain.  It’s always an honor to be named a captain for any football program.  But receiving such an honor at a military academy speaks volumes about what Allen’s coaches and teammates thought about him.

As we have come to expect with Pittsburgh Steelers’ draft picks, Allen has good character.  He’ll fit in well with the Steelers, and his work ethic should endear him to Steeler Nation.

It’s telling that the Steelers took a 6’0″ cornerback in the 3rd round, and then followed that pick up with the 6’1″ Allen in the 4th round.  They obviously think that the team needs more big guys who can cover the taller receivers that are becoming so common in the NFL.  The 5’9″ cornerbacks who used to be prominent are now at a distinct disadvantage against receivers like Calvin Johnson or incoming rookie A.J. Green.

In addition to his height, Allen is a good athlete.  He’d not a track star, but he has both speed and quickness.  Moreover, he recorded the best broad jump of any of the cornerbacks at the NFL Scouting Combine.  Not bad for a kid from a small school.

Allen has good coverage skills.  He played primarily in man coverage, and he lacks experience in zone.  The Steelers play a lot of zone coverage, so he’ll have to be coached in that area.  But he has good football smarts, and he should pick up zone coverage pretty quickly.

Allen did tear his ACL in 2007 and had to be redshirted his freshman year.  But he’s shown no lasting effects from  the injury, and it shouldn’t be a concern.

Steelers’ defensive backs coach Carnell Lake commented that players who attend The Citadel don’t have the opportunity to work on their game like players who go to more traditional football schools.  He acknowledges that Allen is raw, and has not had the opportunity to fully master his craft.  However, he loves Allen’s size and athleticism, and is excited about what Allen can become once he has the opportunity to place his full focus on football.

Cortez Allen is not likely to contribute this year.  However, his size and athleticism made him worth drafting and developing for the future.

Analysis of all 2011 Steelers Draft picks:

Round 1 - Cameron Heyward

Round 2 - Marcus Gilbert

Round 3 - Curtis Brown

Round 4 - Cortez Allen

Round 5 - Chris Carter

Round 6 - Keith Williams

Round 7 - Baron Batch

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Thoughts on Aaron Williams

April 21, 2011 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

The 2011 NFL Draft begins in just 8 days.  Anyone who read my position-by-position analysis of the Steelers knows that I think that cornerback is the Steelers’ biggest need.

When I read mock drafts and various websites, there are two primary names that I keep hearing in connection with the Steelers.  One is Maurkice Pouncey’s twin brother Mike Pouncey, and the other is Texas cornerback Aaron Williams.

I’ll talk about Pouncey in my next article, but today I want to discuss Aaron Williams.

Quite a few mock drafts have Williams coming to the Steelers in the first round.  Moreover, Steelers fans on the various message boards seem to think that he’d be a great fit for the Black & Gold.  All I have to say about that is………”Huh???!!!”

Has anyone actually seen Aaron Williams play?  I have.  The kid gets burned more frequently than microwave popcorn.  I actually liked him when I watched him play in 2009.  But in 2010, he regressed terribly, and at times he didn’t even look like an NFL cornerback prospect.

Two things happened in 2010 that I believed affected Williams.  Firstly, he moved from the slot to the outside.  Secondly, he no longer had 2009 1st round draft pick Earl Thomas backing him up.

The fact that Williams looked far more vulnerable when he didn’t have Thomas behind him seemed eerily reminiscent of how the Steelers’ cornerbacks look any time Troy Polamalu isn’t in the lineup.

Williams’ move to the outside also seemed to cause him problems.  Frankly, I don’t think Williams ever looked comfortable on the outside.  Unfortunately, you can’t waste a first round pick on a nickelback.  To be worthy of an early draft position, Williams has to be comfortable on the outside covering one of the opponent’s top 2 receivers.  And I don’t think he can do that.  At least not yet.

I recognize that many scouts think that Williams is one of the best cornerbacks in this year’s draft, but I don’t agree with that assessment.  In fact, he’s not among my top 5 cornerbacks in this year’s draft.  I actually think that Williams is ultimately going to end up playing safety in the NFL.  But of course, we’ll have to wait to see if that prediction comes true.  (For what it’s worth, I said the same thing about Steelers’ cornerback Keenan Lewis.  To date, the Steelers have not moved him to safety).

There’s no doubt that Williams has great physical traits.  That’s why I think so many people are so high on him.  He’s a tall (6’0″) cornerback with great athletic ability.  He has a 37.5 inch vertical leap, and I’m sure scouts salivate when they envision him covering some of the tall wide receivers in the NFL today.

But physical characteristics and athletic ability are not all that it takes to be a great cornerback.  It also takes ball skills, and Aaron Williams doesn’t have those.  Do you know how many interceptions Williams had in 2010?  None.  That’s right, NONE.  Not one.  Zero.  Zilch (He’d fit right in with the current Steelers cornerbacks).  In fact, he only had 4 interceptions in his 3 year college career.  And it wasn’t because quarterbacks were afraid to throw in his direction.  They threw at him frequently.

Go back and watch some of his games.  If you watch his game against Oklahoma State, you’ll swear that he must have been covering Randy Moss.  He got burned deep repeatedly.  In fact, throughout 2010, Williams got beat far too often by receivers who will never make it to the NFL.  That makes me nervous.  I’d be much more comfortable if he only got beat badly by receivers like A.J. Green and Julio Jones.

If you watch Williams’ technique, you’ll notice that he has a (bad) habit of peaking into the backfield.  When he does, he often loses his man.  If college quarterbacks recognized that and took advantage of it, what do you think Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or Drew Brees will do to the kid?

Not only does Williams lose track of his man when he tries to spy the quarterback, but he’s also extremely susceptible to double moves.  And unlike players like Hall-of-Famers Rod Woodson and Deion Sanders, Williams hasn’t shown that he has the closing burst to recover when his man gets separation.

The Steelers sent all of their coaches to Texas to watch Williams at his Pro Day.  Then they brought him to Pittsburgh for another visit at their South Side facility today.  So obviously, they have interest in him.  But hopefully, they’ll watch some of the games that I saw him play in.  Because the guy that I watched play is not a guy who is going to significantly upgrade the Steelers’ porous defensive backfield.

If they do select him, Carnell Lake is going to have to spend a lot of time with him.  He relies too much on athletic ability, and doesn’t seem to have mastered proper technique.  Against the average college receiver, superior athletic ability is all you need.  Against NFL receivers, that’s just not going to cut it.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t hate the kid.  If the Steelers were able to draft him as a 2nd round safety, or as a 3rd round cornerback, I’d be very happy with the selection.  But as a 1st round cornerback, I just don’t think that his play has justified such a high selection.

But clearly many of you think that he would be a great first round pick, so let me know why you think that.  I’m always open to having my mind changed.

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Steelers position review - Cornerback

March 23, 2011 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

Well, it’s almost April.  The NFL Scouting Combine is  over.  The owners have locked the players out.  I guess it’s time to start talking about the draft.

Before we start talking about who the Steelers should draft, it’s important that we first evaluate how the team currently looks.  Specifically, we need to define their strengths and weaknesses.

Despite the fact that the Steelers participated in the most recent Super Bowl, they are actually a team with quite a few glaring needs.

I’m going to start on the defensive side of the ball, because that’s where I believe the team’s greatest needs lie.

Lot’s of people are saying that the Steelers’ greatest need is offensive linemen.  I don’t agree with that.  In my opinion, the greatest need on the team is at cornerback.

Ike Taylor was the only cornerback on the team who even played at an average level.   Ike has been the Steelers’ stopper for years now.  He’s a big, fast cornerback who can handle any receiver in the league.  Despite that, Ike is limited.  Steelers fans all know that Ike can’t catch.  So he’s never going to generate a lot of interceptions.  Ike has never had more than 3 interceptions during a season, and he’s averaged about 1 interception per season throughout his career.

While being a solid cover corner is great, Ike’s inability to create interceptions is kind of like a 3-4 rush linebacker who doesn’t generate sacks; he’s failing at an important part of the job.

Ike will be 31 years old this year, so he’s not getting any younger, and he’s going to start losing a step or two soon.  Moreover, Ike is a free agent this year.  The Steelers didn’t sign Ike to a new contract, and they seem to be content to let Ike hit the free agent market.  If that happens, it could be a potential nightmare for the Steelers, since they really don’t have any other weapons in their cornerback arsenal.

Bryant McFadden was brought back last year, and by midway through the season, most Steelers fans probably wished he was still in Arizona.

If you’ll recall McFadden’s first stint with the Steelers, he was being platooned with William Gay.  McFadden was viewed as being stronger against the run, but Gay was better in coverage.  Well, that’s pretty much how things still are (which is a scary thought, considering how poorly Gay covers).  McFadden is strong in run coverage, but he can’t cover anybody.  Not even my grandmother.  And she’s 89 years old.

If the Steelers cut McFadden today, I don’t think there would be a single fan who would miss him.

In 2009, William Gay proved that he is not a viable starting cornerback.  He was much better this year when he didn’t have the pressure of being a starter on him.  Gay’s performances ran hot and cold.  He made some really great plays at critical moments.  But he also got burned badly at critical moments.  I think most fans are content to see Gay utilized in nickel and dime packages, but not as a starter.

2010 was supposed to be the year that Keenan Lewis made himself a valuable member of the Steelers’ defense.  But sadly, that didn’t happen.

Lewis has all of the physical attributes that Dick LeBeau could possibly hope for.  He’s big (6’0″, 208 lbs), fast, and athletic.  When he was drafted, I envisioned him playing opposite Ike Taylor, giving the Steelers two cornerbacks who were big and athletic enough to handle even difficult receiving tandems like the Arizona Cardinals old duo of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.  Unfortunately, that vision has never materialized.

Sadly for Steelers fans, Lewis’ mental abilities don’t seem to match his physical talents.  He can be counted on to make a silly mental mistake at the most inopportune times.  Even worse, he often loses control of his emotions and draws penalties that are due entirely to immaturity and hot-headedness.

Did anyone else find it odd that in a season where the Steelers clearly struggled at the cornerback position, Lewis wasn’t able to earn any increased playing time?  That says all that needs to be said about what the coaches think about Lewis’ development.  Next year will probably be a make or break season for Keenan Lewis.

The Steelers drafted Crezdon Butler in last year’s draft.  Like most rookies playing in the Steelers’ defense, Butler didn’t get much playing time.  So the jury is still out on him.  But I’ll expect to see a lot more out of him in 2011.

Those are the players who will likely battle for the starting cornerback positions next year.  Now imagine what the competition will look like if the Steelers lose Ike Taylor to free agency.  The starting cornerbacks would likely be Bryant McFadden and William Gay.  Yikes!  The mere thought of it is enough to bring you to tears, isn’t it?  With those two as the starting cornerbacks, the Steelers would likely go 0-16.  That’s why I say that cornerback is the single greatest need for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Frankly, all other needs pale in comparison.

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The cornerback battle

July 26, 2010 By: Admin Category: Players, training camp

With Steelers training camp less than a week away, many Steelers fans are anxious to see if Bryant McFadden will beat out William Gay for the starting left cornerback position.

Okay, that’s probably an understatement.  The reality is that most Steelers fans are PRAYING that McFadden will beat out Gay for the starting spot.  Fans remember McFadden, and they feel confident that he will do a much better job than Gay did last year.

CB William Gay making a play

Personally, I don’t think it’s possible to do a worse job than Gay did last season.  However, I think fans are missing the mark if they believe that the Steelers have a two-horse race on their hands this summer at training camp.

Sure, McFadden and Gay are the Steelers’ most experienced cornerbacks, outside of Ike Taylor whose starting position is basically assured.  However, Gay and McFadden are not the only players with a chance of emerging as starters this season.

William Gay shared snaps with McFadden in 2008, and then took over the starting position in 2009 after McFadden signed with the Arizona Cardinals.  Gay struggled as a starter.  He was often out of position, and he seemed to have difficulty covering his man (regardless of who he was covering).  He didn’t make a single interception during the entire season.  In fact, none of the Steelers’ cornerbacks recorded an interception until the final game of the season in 2009.  Gay did have 10 passes defensed, but that number is not particularly impressive considering how opposing quarterbacks seemed to go at him at least 20 times per game.

William Gay makes another play

While some believe that McFadden is the answer, I’m not sure that’s the case.  Remember that back in 2008, the reason that McFadden and Gay split playing time was that McFadden was better against the run, but Gay was thought to have better coverage skills.  Like Gay, McFadden also had no interceptions last year despite starting all 16 games for the Cardinals.  In fact, he only has 7 interceptions in his five years in the NFL.  By comparison, cornerbacks Asante Samuel (PHI) and Charles Woodson (GB) each recorded 9 interceptions last season.  McFadden also recorded fewer tackles than Gay last season (69 versus 78).  So I wouldn’t be so quick to anoint McFadden as the starter.

In 2009, the Steelers selected Keenan Lewis in the 3rd round of the NFL Draft.  Lewis was injured most of last season, so fans never really got to see what he could do.  But there was a reason the team took him so early in the draft.  He is long and rangy, and his size will remind fans of Ike Taylor.  Lewis is taller than either McFadden or Gay.  He is also almost 20 lbs. heavier than either of them.  Despite not getting to play last year, he has had a full year to digest Dick LeBeau’s defensive scheme.  That experience should serve him well in training camp this year.

The Steelers also took another cornerback in the 2009 NFL Draft.  Joe Burnett was selected in the 5th round out of Central Florida.  Burnett was taken primarily for his All-American status as a kick/punt returner.  Stefan Logan seems to have won the primary returner spot for the Steelers, but Burnett still has a chance to win a spot as a cornerback.  Most fans probably remember Burnett most for dropping an easy, potentially game-winning, interception against the Oakland Raiders last year.  It is probably not fair that that is the play that most fans remember Burnett by.  He was actually quite a playmaker in college.  He set the record for career interceptions at Central Florida.  While he is a bit under-sized, I won’t be surprised to see Burnett show a lot more during training camp than we saw from him last year.  He’s a better athlete than William Gay, and with a year of experience under his belt, he should be ready to compete with Gay and McFadden for playing time.

William Gay makes yet another play

Crezdon Butler was drafted in the 5th round of this year’s NFL Draft, and expectations for him are high.  Like Keenan Lewis, Butler is a tall cornerback.  Butler has very good speed and athleticism.  However, in college he relied too much on his athleticism and did not develop good technique.  Like Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett before him, I think that Butler is going to spend his rookie season simply learning the Steelers’ defense.

Despite not having a great season last year, I believe that Ike Taylor’s position is secure.  He is the Steelers’ best cornerback, and he usually defends the opposing team’s best receiver.   I believe that last season was an anomaly for Taylor, and that this year he will return to being the same “cover corner” with hands of stone that he has always been.  The one thing worth noting is that this is the final season of Taylor’s contract, and the Steelers have not offered him an extension.

The Steelers did sign former Baltimore Ravens CB David Pittman during the off-season.  Pittman has spent his career as a journeyman, and has never made an impact in the league.  I doubt he will make the Steelers’ roster.

William Gay doing what he does best

Of all of the position battles that will take place during training camp, cornerback is the one that I am most interested in.  It is the position that looked the weakest last year for the Steelers.

The question that the Steelers will have to answer is “do they have a strong group of cornerbacks who simply looked bad due to Troy Polamalu’s absence, or do they have a weak group of cornerbacks who were exposed by Polamalu’s absence?”  One way or another, that question is going to be answered this season.


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