Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Preview: Defensive Backs
Last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary was one of the weakest units on the team.
They had lost cornerback Bryant McFadden to free agency and All-Pro Troy Polamalu to injury for most of the season.
Flash forward one year and the Steelers made a trade to re-acquire McFadden from the Arizona Cardinals and Troy Polamalu is healthy entering training camp.
All of a sudden, a potentially weak group is looking relatively strong once again.
The Steelers secondary will be looking to rebound from their poor performance in 2009 when they allowed 22 passing touchdowns while making only 12 interceptions while finishing 17th against the pass.
The return of McFadden and Polamalu should help as well as the potential emergence of the young talent they have at corner.
Cornerbacks – Starters
Ike Taylor had a down year last season, but is typically the Steelers top shut down cornerback.
Considering he is playing for a contract, look for Taylor to have a bounce back season.
With only nine interceptions in seven seasons in the league, do not expect Taylor’s numbers to vastly improve, but rather look to see if he can once again take away half of the field from opposing offenses.
At the age of 30, Taylor is at the point of his career where he may be slowing down.
Coaches and fans can see if one of the fastest Steelers has lost a step as he will likely match up against speedy wide receiver Mike Wallace in camp. Can Taylor match Wallace’s speed in defending deep routes? That will be a key thing to look out for at camp.
Opposite of Taylor, expect McFadden to reclaim his old starting role.
William Gay struggled when he became the full-time starter last season forcing Pittsburgh to make a trade to bring back McFadden.
Though McFadden struggled with the Cardinals, he is an experienced veteran who knows and has succeeded in the Steelers defense.
If McFadden struggles throughout camp and the preseason, though, there should be concern that he may revert to his play in Arizona as opposed to his play while in Pittsburgh.
Cornerbacks – Backups
Pittsburgh has a very interesting group of backups vying for the nickel and dime roles this season.
Gay, while in over his head at starter, is much better suited as a nickel back for the Steelers.
Not overly big or fast, Gay was very successful in his second season as a spot starter and as a nickel and dime back.
When in these roles, Gay does not have to defend fast receivers deep, a weakness of his. As a very smart, experienced player, he may become the new Deshea Townsend of the defense.
But Gay cannot assume that he has this job wrapped up with the presence of second year corners Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett.
Lewis was adversely affected by injuries last season which prevented him from making any true impact.
This season should be a bit different for Lewis as he is expected to not only compete for the nickel role, but also a starting role.
Lewis is a big, physical corner who has the upside to be an effective starter in the league if he can put it all together. The key will be his comfort level with the defense this season, as all of the physical tools are there.
On the other hand, Burnett is best suited as a nickel back and will try to push Gay down the depth chart. He had opportunities last season, but did not make much of them.
As with Lewis, Burnett will need to show an increased comfort level with the defense this camp.
Cornerbacks – The Rest
The most intriguing name from the rest of the corners is Crezdon Butler.
The fifth round selection from Clemson was said to have impressed in minicamp, but will need to translate that to training camp.
Butler has the tools to be a decent cover corner, but will have to adjust to the physicality of the NFL game.
However, if he shows flashes, he has a good chance to make the roster since the Steelers are looking at all options to upgrade their secondary.
Anthony Madison is a well-known name to the Steelers with his special teams play, but that will not be enough to make the roster this season.
David Pittman will only be used for camp depth.
Safeties – Starters
The most exciting addition to the Steelers this offseason may be the return of Polamalu.
Polamalu had an outstanding start last season, looking like the best defender in the league, making three interceptions in five games. However, it was not to be as he missed 11 games due to a knee injury suffered in week one, then re-aggravated in week 10.
The health of Polamalu will be the most important factor of the success of the Steelers defense this season. It will be interesting to see how his knee holds up throughout camp. Do not be surprised to see head coach Mike Tomlin give Polamalu some extra time off.
Polamalu’s running mate, Ryan Clark, should also be happy with his return.
Clark is at his best when Polamalu is on the field. Last season without him, Clark was the victimized on deep balls.
However, with a healthy tandem of Polamalu and Clark, Pittsburgh should have one of the most productive safety combinations in the league this season.
Safeties – Backups
Will Allen signed with the Steelers from Tampa Bay and will likely replace Tyrone Carter as the top backup safety for Pittsburgh.
Over his career, Allen had 24 starts for Tampa Bay, but made his mark as a special teams contributor.
In 2008, Allen had a career high 21 special teams tackles and was named the special teams’ captain. He was unable to follow up on his outstanding season as he missed half of the year after being placed on the injured reserve.
Allen has the ability to backup both safety positions.
Ryan Mundy should also see playing time throughout the season.
Pittsburgh’s second sixth round pick in 2008, Mundy spent part of his rookie year on the Steelers’ practice squad before moving into a backup role last season.
In his second season with the team, Mundy was a solid special teams contributor with 19 tackles and saw time in the defense as well.
Allen and Mundy will have to compete to determine which player will be the primary backup at safety. However, expect both to be major contributors on special teams.
Safeties – The Rest
Tuff Harris is a fourth year player who has spent time on the Steelers’ and Tennessee Titans’ practice squads.
Harris is a capable special teams player and has seen time at safety while with the Titans, but it is unlikely that he will overtake Allen or Mundy.
At 6'1", 213 pounds, rookie free agent Justin Thorton is a big prospect and his potential has some fans excited. He will likely be a camp body, but has potential to make the practice squad.