Pittsburgh Steelers 2012 Training Camp Preview: Defensive Backs
Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis has some high expectations for himself this season.
Lewis told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he expects to accomplish something that no other Steelers cornerback has done since Rod Woodson in 1996.
“Pro Bowl,” Lewis predicted. “Watch out, this is going to be a big year right here.”
It will be a major achievement for Lewis, who has only started one game in his career. He will also face stiff competition from Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen.
Whether Lewis—or any other Steelers’ cornerback for that matter—makes the Pro Bowl remains to be seen.
Regardless of who wins the job, Pittsburgh will have plenty of options to put on the field as they find ways to defend the precision passing attacks seen in the NFL today.
But by combining the talent at cornerback with Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark at safety, Pittsburgh will potentially have one of the strongest defensive backfields in the league.
Here is a preview of the Steelers’ defensive backs.
It was a particularly crushing finish for Ike Taylor, who was beaten by Demaryius Thomas for the game-winning touchdown. Taylor told Albert Buford of the New Orleans Times-Picayune that he has not forgotten that play.
“I remember it every day,” Taylor said. “People remember you for things you do, and I don’t want to have that game be what people remember me for.”
The process of changing that perception will begin as he prepares for a new season at training camp.
Taylor will still be the Steelers top cornerback, but will have plenty of competition for the other starting role. Keenan Lewis will be the favorite to earn the job after playing corner in the nickel defense last season.
Being his first year as a key contributor, Lewis played well. He was not susceptible to the big play and has all of the athletic abilities to continue to improve.
But he will be pushed by Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen.
Brown was a third-round draft pick last season and caught the coaches’ attention on special teams. Injuries in camp and throughout the season contributed to him not being a factor with the defense.
While Brown will be a factor, the biggest threat to Lewis may be Cortez Allen.
Allen was drafted in the fourth round by the Steelers last season and at 6’1” is the tallest of the young corners.
Despite being athletically gifted, it was thought that Allen would take time to develop given how raw he was. But Allen had an outstanding camp and would eventually earn a spot with the defense on passing downs.
The battle for the second starting spot at cornerback will be the most exciting in training camp this year.
Things are much more secure at safety where Polamalu and Clark will once again start. Though they are another year older, this duo is one of the top pairs in the league and should be in for another good season.
Behind the starters, Ryan Mundy is the top backup and there will be a number of players, including Will Allen, who will compete for a spot on the roster.
Allen is primarily a special teams player, but is the most experienced backup besides Mundy. However, he has a high price tag for a backup with a $1.6 million cap hit.
That may leave the door open for a young safety to make the final roster.
Cornerbacks: The Players
Taylor is the Steelers best cornerback and he does a very good job against the best receivers in the game. He is one of the fastest players on the team and is a physical tackler. While he will not put up big interception numbers, Taylor will get the job done and the Steelers can depend on him for another year.
Lewis took a big leap forward last year and developed into a solid player. He is physical with decent speed, but is not a big playmaker. He set lofty expectations for himself this year and will no doubt work hard to achieve them.
Brown played well on special teams last year and will look to have an expanded role on the defense this year. He is very athletic and quick. He will compete to start and if not, has a chance to be the nickel corner.
Besides Taylor, Allen is the Steelers most athletic cornerback. He showed a lot of potential as a rookie and that year of experience should serve him well this season. He will compete to start. Even if Allen does not win the starting job, he should be a big contributor to the defense.
A seventh-round draft pick this season, Frederick has the inside track on being the fifth cornerback. He is only 5’10” and ran a 4.54 40-yard dash, so his upside is limited to a backup role. But he will not have to contribute on the defense this year. Instead, Frederick will have to show that he can play special teams.
Carter is an undrafted free agent from Louisiana Tech. His size and speed is very comparable to Frederick, which could mean the two will directly compete against each other. He’ll have to show that he can play special teams.
McFadden has failed to make an impact since being drafted in the fifth round by the Oakland Raiders in the 2010 draft. He is the younger brother of former Steelers’ cornerback Bryant McFadden. He will really have to show signs of development if he is to make the roster over a younger player.
Freeman played college football at Slippery Rock, so the level of competition that he faces will be a huge jump. He will likely need more seasoning before being a serious roster candidate.
Safeties: The Players
Polamalu is still an elite safety and the most dynamic defender on the roster. As long as he stays healthy, Polamalu should have an excellent season and help make the Steelers’ defense one of the best in the league.
Clark is as steady as it gets in the NFL. He is very physical and one of the biggest hitters on the team. Despite not playing “center field,” Clark has shown the ability to make a big interception. He will miss the game play in Denver against the Broncos.
Mundy is an experienced backup who can play free and strong safety. There is no reason to believe that he once again won’t be the top backup this year.
Allen has limited experience playing with the Steelers defense and has primarily been a special teams player. He is an expensive backup and his roster spot could be in danger if a young safety steps up.
Cromartie-Smith is an intriguing option at safety with his athleticism and 6’2” size. He spent 2010 on the Steelers’ practice squad and played in four games last season. With his experience, he has a shot to make the roster.
Rolle may be best known for being a Rhodes Scholar. His 6’2”, 215 pound frame will help him match up against the bigger tight ends. He is a high character player and has a high football IQ. Rolle is hard not to root for, but he has a lot of talent ahead of him.
Golden had 38 straight starts in college at Arizona and can play safety or cornerback. According to Sports-Reference.com, he had 22 pass breakups and four interceptions in his college career. He does have upside, but has a lot to overcome to make the team.
3 Key Questions
1. Who will start at cornerback?
Taylor is given as one starter, but who is the other? Lewis is the favorite, but he will have a lot of competition with Brown and Allen. It will be the most exciting battle of camp. But what this battle really means is that the Steelers have a lot of depth and talent at cornerback.
2. Can Myron Rolle make the roster?
Rolle is a good, smart football player. However, is he an NFL caliber player? So far he has not proven himself and he will at least have an opportunity to with the Steelers.
Rolle will be in direct competition with Allen and Cromartie-Smith. Given Allen’s time on the team, he will be the man to beat. Chances are that Mike Tomlin will defer to a player that he is comfortable with before going with an inexperienced player, so Rolle must stand out.
3. Will the defensive backs intercept the ball?
Last season, Polamalu, Taylor and William Gay tied for the team lead with two interceptions each. The rest of the defensive backs combined for three additional interceptions. Nine interceptions for this unit isn’t enough, especially considering the team only had 11 total.
The Steelers need bigger numbers from all of the defensive backs, especially Polamalu. An improved pass rush and more athletic cornerbacks should help.