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Steelers position review - Safety

March 27, 2011 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

This is Part 2 of our Steelers position review series.  If you haven’t read Part 1, please click the link below.

Steelers position review - Cornerbacks

We started with the cornerbacks.  In this installment, we’re going to look at the other defensive back position; the safeties.

Safety is a unique position for the Steelers.  Most fans view it as a strength.  After all, Troy Polamalu plays safety.  He’s the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.  But the reality is that safety is actually a weakness for the Steelers.  And it’s a weakness that needs to be addressed.

Just think about what the team looks like when Troy is NOT in the game.  Suddenly, the safeties look just as pathetic as the cornerbacks.  Even Ryan Clark looks terrible when Troy’s not in the game.  Troy’s presence just covers up the shortcomings of the other players.  That’s why most fans (and websites) don’t list safety as a weakness for the Steelers.  But it is.  So let’s break it down.

Ryan Clark had a career year in 2010.  He had more tackles than he’s ever had in his career.  That was partially because Troy Polamalu missed games and Clark had to pick up some of the slack.  But it was also because there were so many receivers running wild in the Steelers’ defensive backfield that the cornerbacks and safeties had to make a lot of tackles.

Clark will be 32 years old next season.  That’s definitely not a good thing.  He’s much closer to the end of his career than the beginning.  He probably has 1 or two years left.  And those will likely be years in which he’s in decline.

Ryan Clark’s backup is Ryan Mundy.  This will be Mundy’s third year with the team.  During that time, he’s started a grand total of 2 games.  When he has played, he’s often been more of a liability than an asset.  Some of that was obviously due to inexperience, but does anyone feel comfortable with the idea of Mundy as a starter?  Neither do I.

Even if Mundy did look like a potential starter, he’s a free agent this year.  He’s been primarily a special teams player during his time on the team, and I don’t know if the Steelers view signing him as a priority.  They can likely get someone just as good in free agency, and can probably find a better long-term solution in the draft.

So the free safety position is going to need retooling soon.  And it’s better to do it while Ryan Clark is still with the team.  That makes it a priority in the short-term.

The backup at strong safety is Will Allen.  Like Mundy, Allen’s primary contribution has been on special teams.   2011 will be Allen’s eighth season in the NFL.  All but one of those years has been as a backup.  So it is highly unlikely that Allen is suddenly going to develop the skills needed to be a starter in the NFL.  If he had that potential, it would have shown itself 5 years ago.

Thus, the Steelers have two backup safeties who haven’t shown the potential to be starters, and two starters who will both be 30 or older this year.  Are you starting to see why I say that safety is a need position for the Steelers?

Finally, we have Troy Polamalu.  As I menti0ned earlier, Polamalu is the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.  He may be the best safety in the NFL.  But Troy’s playing days will come to an end someday, and the Steelers need to prepare for that day.

Safety Troy Polamalu

Troy will be 30 years old next month.  That may not sound so old, but Troy plays with reckless abandon.  The way that he throws his body around must make him age in dog years.

Troy has only managed to play a complete season once in the past 5 years.  He was on the field during the playoffs and Super Bowl this year, but Steelers fans know that he didn’t really play.  He was too injured to make a difference.  He was just out there acting as a decoy.

Will Troy be 100% healthy next year?  Maybe.  But we all know that the body doesn’t heal as quickly or as completely as we get older (just ask Aaron Smith).  So Troy may or may not be his old self in 2011.

Here’s a radical thought that I know Steelers fans are going to hate, but I’m going to throw it out there anyway.  One of the things that I respect about the New England Patriots is their willingness to trade aging veterans in order to retool for the future.  No team does it better than them.  That’s one of the reason that they always seem to have 2-3 picks in the first round of every draft.  So what would happen if the Steelers stole a page from the Patriots.  Troy is coming off of an amazing season in which he was recognized as being the best defensive player in the NFL.  When will his value ever be higher than it is now?  So what do you think the Steelers could get back in a trade for him?  Two first round picks?  Perhaps a first round pick and a top-notch veteran player?  If Troy were the bait, players who seemed out of reach for the Steelers (like Patrick Peterson) suddenly become a possibility.  Think about it.

I know that I’m going to get hate mail for even suggesting that the Steelers trade Troy.  I’ve been doing  this long enough to know that nothing stirs up the ire of Steeler Nation more than saying something negative about Troy Polamalu.  But I had to at least mention the idea.  It’s what the Patriots would do.  And I think it’s worth discussing.

So the Steelers have two aging veteran starters at safety, and two backups who are never likely to be starters in the NFL.  Oh yeah, and one of those backups is a free agent.  Now do you see why I say that safety is a position of need for the Steelers?

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The Steelers’ challenges (part 1)

March 05, 2010 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

Well, the NFL Combine has started, and free agency officially began at midnight on Thursday.  So draft season has officially begun.  It’s time to take a look at exactly what the Steelers need, and who is out there to help them meet those needs.

We are going to start out with the Steelers’ defensive backs, and work our way through all of the positions on the team.

First up, the safeties.

This past season was one that the Steelers would like to forget.  And the defensive backs would probably like to forget it more than any other group of players.  Oh wait, I forgot about the special teams guys.  Scratch that last comment.

Okay, so BESIDES the special teams players, the defensive backs probably want to forget this past season more than any other group.  I’ll talk about the cornerbacks in the next installment in this series, but today, I want to focus on the Safeties.

I hear many fans saying that without Troy Polamalu, the rest of the Steelers defensive backs got exposed as the sub-par players that they really are.  I don’t agree with that assessment.

More than any other unit except perhaps the offensive line, the defensive backs live and die as a unit.  When one part is out of whack, the rest of the unit suffers.  This is what happened when Troy Polamalu went down with his injury.

Troy is one of the best safeties in the NFL.  Losing him is not easy to recover from.  Tyrone Carter tries his best, and he is a competent backup, but he is not Troy Polamalu.

All indications are that Troy is recovering nicely from his injury, and will be ready to go next season.  I hope that’s true, but the reality is that Troy has missed 30% of the Steelers’ games over the past 4 seasons.  2008 was the only season out of the past 4 that Troy was able to play all 16 regular season games.

So while many fans are saying that the Steelers need to draft a safety to replace Ryan Clark, who may leave in free agency, I think they need to draft a safety to backup (and potentially replace) Troy Polamalu.

Don’t get me wrong.  If Troy is healthy, then I definitely want him in the Steelers lineup.  But I’m just not sure that it’s a safe bet to assume that he will be healthy.  Recent history shows that he won’t be healthy 30% of the time.  In 2009 he was unhealthy 70% of the time.

I’ve had numerous conversations this past year with Steelers fans who disagree with me.  They think that Ryan Clark played terribly this past season, and that the Steelers need to let him walk in free agency.  What they don’t understand is that they are wrong.  The Steelers need to be concerned about every safety on their roster EXCEPT for Ryan Clark.

Ryan Clark quietly had the best season of his career in 2009.  He had career highs in tackles and passes defensed.  He also tied his career high in interceptions (but had his highest total as a Steeler).  He was tied for the team lead in interceptions, and was second on the team in total tackles.

So why do so many Steelers fans think that Clark had a terrible season?  Moreover, why are they anxious to see him leave?

Meanwhile, Tyrone Carter will be 34 years old next season.  Carter has been a capable backup, but surely the team could find a younger player to fill the same role.

Ryan Mundy is a young safety, but he has never started a game.  In his two years with the Steelers, he has accumulated 25 tackles and 1 pass defensed.  That’s not enough to make me feel confident that he is the safety of the future.

So the only Steelers safety that I feel completely confident in is the one who may be leaving in free agency.

Looking at the available free agents, Ryan Clark is the 2nd best safety available.  Only Darren Sharper is more talented than Clark.  So Clark very likely will receive offers from other teams.

What should the Steelers do?

The Steelers have too much uncertainty at the safety position.  They need to do everything in their power to sign Ryan Clark.  In fact, they should have done so before the free agency period began.

The Steelers never participate in the initial free agency period.  Moreover, they never sign high profile free agents.  So there is little chance that they will pursue Darren Sharper or Antrelle Rolle.  They are the only two free agent safeties who are in Clark’s class.  Any other free agent safety will be a step down.

So if the Steelers lose Ryan Clark, they will be left with Troy Polamalu and little else at safety.

This year’s draft has quite a few talented safeties that the Steelers could be interested in.

Eric Berry is the best safety in this year’s draft.  But he will be gone long before the Steelers’ selection comes around.  So there is no need discuss him.

Earl Thomas out of Texas is a very real possibility for the Steelers.  He is a natural free safety, and he has the versatility to play some  cornerback in a pinch.  Thomas would look great in black and gold, and he should be available  at the 18th pick.

Taylor Mays is another name that is often mentioned by Steelers fans as someone that they’d like to see the Steelers select.  I don’t agree with that opinion.  Taylor Mays is a freakish athlete.  But he’s not a very good safety.  He reminds me a bit of the late Sean Taylor.  Like Sean Taylor, Mays is huge for a safety, and looks more like a small linebacker.  But also like Sean Taylor, Taylor Mays is lacking in his coverage skills.  Moreover, Taylor Mays is a natural strong safety.  That’s Troy Polamalu’s position.  The Steelers greatest need is for a free safety to fill the void that may be left by Ryan Clark.

In Taylor Mays, the Steelers would get a player who hits like James Harrison, covers like William Gay, and catches the ball like Ike Taylor.  Only one of those three things is good.


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Steelers Training Camp Preview: Safeties

July 28, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency, Players

July 28, 2009
By Donald Starver

Three more days until the start of training camp.  I was hoping to have this series completed before training camp began, but it doesn’t look like that is going to happen now.   Darn!

In part 1 of this series we looked at the defensive line.  In part 2 we looked at the linebackers.  In this installment, we are going to turn our attention to the safeties.

In the 2 years that Mike Tomlin has been coach, he has typically carried 4 safeties on the roster.  This number has gone as low as 3 at times due to injuries.  However, 4 seems to be his preferred number.

With that in mind, let’s assume that this year, the Steelers will come out of training camp with 4 safeties on the roster.  The Steelers will go to training camp with 5 safeties, so our task is to identify who is likely to be the odd man out when training camp ends.

Troy Polamalu - Had it not been for James Harrison’s super-human season in 2008, most Steelers fans would have been pimping Troy Polamalu for Defensive Player of the Year.  Polamalu rebounded from a sub-par, injury-riddled 2007 season with a vengeance.  In 2008 he recorded 73 tackles, 7 interceptions, and 24 passes defensed.  Those are exceptional numbers by anyone’s standards.

I think the Steelers should keep this kid.  Don’t you?


Ryan Clark - Clark has always been a competent, if unremarkable safety for the Steelers.  He does his job well and without fanfare.   However, Clark made some devastating hits last season that made fans stand up and take notice.  His hit on Patriots receiver Wes Welker particularly stands out.  That play alone probably made him a favorite of many Steelers fans, and earned him a spot on the 2009 roster.

Tyrone Carter - It is no secret that I am not a fan of Tyrone Carter.  While Carter has been adequate when called upon to play, I have always felt uneasy about his physical stature.  There just aren’t many 5’9″, 195 pound strong safeties in the NFL.  Carter is okay in a pinch, but if anything were to happen to Troy Polamalu, I wouldn’t want to depend on Carter as a long-term solution.

"Hey there little fella."

"Hey there little fella."

Carter is a 10 year veteran, so his experience counts for something.  However he is 33 years old.  That’s 79 in football years.  His time with the Steelers will not last much longer.

Ryan Mundy - Mundy lost his rookie season due to injury.  With the loss of Anthony Smith, Mundy is going to have to step up and earn his paycheck.  This is likely, since the Steelers’ coaching staff has had nothing but good things to say about Mundy since he joined the team.  I feel confident that Mundy is going to be given every opportunity to make the team.

Derrick Richardson - The free agent from New Mexico State has a real chance of making the Steelers.  He was a second team All-WAC selection his senior year.  He led the nation in tackles per game with 12.5 per game.  That was more that .5 tackles per game more than his closest competitor.  He recorded 8 games with double digit tackles, and had a 21 tackle performance against UTEP.  In 2008, no NCAA defensive player was more of a playmaker than Derrick Richardson.

Richardson is a tough, aggressive safety who is excellent in run support.  That will play well in Dick LeBeau’s defense where safeties MUST be strong in run support.  He is physical, and is always around the ball.  He is also an aggressive special teams player.

Richardson is not as strong in coverage, and has marginal ball skills.  He is not going to lead the league in interceptions.

Richardson is primarily a strong safety, so he will be going head-to-head with Tyrone Carter.  While I would like to see Richardson beat out Tyrone Carter, I just don’t see it happening.  Ryan Mundy is essentially a rookie, and I just can’t see the Steelers coming out of training camp with 2 rookies as the back-ups at safety.  That would leave the team too exposed if one of the starters suffered an injury.

Therefore, I project that Derrick Richardson will be placed on the practice squad, and Tyrone Carter will maintain his position on the 53-man roster.

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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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Ryan Clark jacks up Wes Welker!!!

November 30, 2008 By: Admin Category: Players

For those of you who missed it, Ryan Clark put a devastating hit on Patriots’ receiver Wes Welker. Welker never returned to the game after the hit, so I’m going to assume that he was seeing birds and hearing bells.

Let’s take one more look at the hit.

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