The Pittsburgh Steelers had the top passing defense in the league last season in large part due to the outstanding play of their defensive backs.
Without the threat of a pass rush, the Steelers' defensive backs faced a lot of pressure, and Ryan Clark led. He has one of the best seasons of his career and was the most consistent player on the defense. He will need to bring a similar effort to the secondary this season.
Clark will be rejoined by Troy Polamalu to once again form one of the best—and oldest—safety duos in the league. It is important that they stay on the field; the depth is thin with the free-agent departures of backup safeties Will Allen and Ryan Mundy.
Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake will have a couple of young, talented options to develop in Robert Golden and Shamarko Thomas.
The Steelers will have to overcome another loss after starting cornerback Keenan Lewis signed with the New Orleans Saints. He will be replaced by the exciting third-year player Cortez Allen.
William Gay will round out the secondary. The Steelers brought him back after spending a year with the Arizona Cardinals. Though he is not the most talented cornerback, he knows the system and will provide a stopgap option until a young cornerback is ready to step up.
Pittsburgh may not have the experience in the secondary it had last season, but there is plenty of young talent ready to go.
As I conclude my position-by-position training camp preview, I will examine the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive backs.
The Steelers have a terrific pair of starters at cornerback with Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen.
Taylor is a dependable starting cornerback capable of shutting down some of the top receivers in the game. Even though he struggled early in the 2012 season, he bounced back to form and had a strong finish to the season prior to missing the final four games with a fractured ankle.
He may not be a Pro Bowl player, but Taylor should once again shadow an opponent’s top receiving option. He will prepare for it by matching up against Antonio Brown in training camp.
But Taylor won’t have to do it alone. Cortez Allen is primed for a breakout season.
Allen was fantastic in limited time last season, and the team is confident he can handle the starting job. There are plenty of reasons to be excited about Allen.
He has been outstanding in his first two training camps and began to show his potential as a future starter. More importantly, that talent translated to in-game performances, particularly last year when he made an impact as a role player.
Last season, Allen played in 15 games—including three starts—and finished with 55 tackles, 10 passes defended, two interceptions, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He is exactly what the Steelers need at cornerback—a playmaker.
At 6’1” and 196 pounds, Allen has the size to match up against the taller receivers and tight ends in the league but also the speed to run with anyone. While he’ll start, Allen may move to the slot in nickel packages.
If Allen moves to the slot, William Gay will play on the outside. He's played that position before well enough not to be a complete liability, but he's not the ideal option.
He will have trouble against the more physically gifted receivers, but the Steelers will likely try to avoid those matchup problems. In his last season with the Steelers, Pro Football Focus graded him at 0.0, which represents an average grade.
Outside of the top three, things get pretty murky.
Curtis Brown is the favorite for the fourth spot, but he needs to show something this training camp.
He has yet to make an impact in the defense even though he has been a special teams star and led the team in special teams tackles last season.
Brown has good size (6’0”, 185 pounds) to support in the passing game and defend against the run. Now in his third season, maybe things will click for him as they did with Keenan Lewis.
The rest of the cornerback depth chart is littered with borderline NFL players.
Terry Hawthorne was the Steelers’ fifth-round draft pick. He displayed a lot of potential early in his college career but fell off a bit his senior season.
He has all of the physical tools you want in a cornerback and now just needs to put it together. However, he may be a little behind after missing time earlier in the spring due to an injury.
Speaking of physical tools, DeMarcus Van Dyke is loaded with them.
At 6’1”, he would be one of the tallest defensive backs on the team. He has elite speed, demonstrated by running the 40-yard dash in 4.28 seconds at the 2011 combine. He has a lot of tools to work with and needs them to translate to the playing field.
Josh Victorian got a surprise start last season, which showed the injury issues that the Steelers suffered in the secondary. He is a serviceable cornerback at the bottom of the depth chart but should never start again.
Ross Ventrone, Isaiah Green and Nigel Malone complete the depth chart. None of these players have the same upside as the players ahead of them on the depth chart. They are unlikely to make the team.
Troy Polamalu is a difference-maker in Pittsburgh’s defense, but can he stay healthy?
Last season, he only started seven games and was never able to establish himself. Though he did have his moments with 34 tackles and an interception, it was not enough. The Steelers need him to play 16 games and be a playmaker in the secondary.
As he ages and slows down, Polamalu will have to take fewer risks, though LeBeau should not stop playing him near the line of scrimmage, where he is at his best.
While Polamalu was missing action, Clark was a steady presence in the secondary and really held the unit together.
He has improved his production each year with the team (except for 2007 when he missed 10 games) and had the best season of his career last year with 102 tackles, seven passes defended, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
Even though he is 33 years old, Clark is still playing at a high level and should once again be a threat in the secondary.
Behind the starters, the Steelers will break in new top backups with Robert Golden, Shamarko Thomas and DaMon Cromartie-Smith vying for spots.
Golden saw limited action as a rookie last season, but he's currently the top backup. He should learn both safety positions in training camp and may even get time with the starting defense on passing downs.
He will be ahead of Cromartie-Smith, who is now entering his third season with the Steelers.
Cromartie-Smith has terrific size at 6’2”. But he has never established himself as anything more than a bottom-of-the-depth-chart safety.
While these two young safeties will look to make an impression, fourth-round draft pick Shamarko Thomas will draw most of the attention.
A main reason Thomas fell so far in the draft is his lack of height. At only 5'9", Thomas will have trouble measuring up to the tall tight ends and receivers.
Beyond this, he is a fantastic prospect.
He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds and has the ability to line up all over the field, whether it is near the line, deep or as an inside cover man. Thomas has the speed to get deep, yet the physical toughness to step up and lay a huge hit. He is a perfect fit for the Steelers’ defense.
There also may be no harder worker.
If you check out Thomas’ Instagram account, you’ll see that he is constantly working out in virtually every location possible. Even I break a sweat watching his workouts.
Thomas is an impressive rookie. It will be interesting to see how the coaches break him into the NFL in his first training camp.
Key Questions (and Answers)
Will Cortez Allen live up to his potential?
I believe that Cortez Allen is going to have a very good year for a first-year starter. I expect him to lead all cornerbacks in interceptions. Plus, he will add a physical presence against the run. He will make some mistakes and have some rough patches, but that should be expected from a young player.
Allen has been impressive since his rookie season and has gotten better every year. The Steelers should be very excited to have him in the starting lineup with Ike Taylor.
Has Troy Polamalu lost a step?
Polamalu is 32 years old and going into his 11th season, so yes, he has lost a step.
However, he should remain one of the best strong safeties in the league as long as he can stay healthy. I expect a solid season out of Polamalu as they begin to scale back his responsibilities and place more of the roaming duties on Lawrence Timmons.
Another interesting note is that the last time he missed significant action in a season was in 2009, when he missed 11 games. He followed that year up with 63 tackles and seven interceptions while playing in 14 games.
Polamalu may not match those numbers, but he has shown he can bounce back nicely from an injury-plagued season.
Can Shamarko Thomas contribute as a rookie?
Thomas should be a special teams demon from Day 1 and a contributor on passing downs before the end of the season. He will have to earn the trust of the coaching staff, but given his work ethic and talent, that should not take very long.
While there is no saying for sure how high Thomas would have been drafted if he were two inches taller, I would bet it would be higher than the fourth round. I believe that he has at least second-round talent. It shouldn’t be unexpected for a player of that caliber to contribute as a rookie.
Which young cornerback will stand out?
I do not believe there will be any true “standout” cornerbacks. However, I think this is the year that Curtis Brown demonstrates he has the ability to contribute on passing downs. The third year is often when it finally begins to click for players. It is Brown’s time to show that he is capable of more.
While I don’t have many expectations for either player, it would be beneficial if DeMarcus Van Dyke or Terry Hawthorne flash some abilities in coverage. Teams need at least three good cornerbacks, and with Ike Taylor getting near the end of his career, it would be nice to have a future starter waiting on the roster.