When people think of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense, some great words are used to describe them. Tough. Hard-hitting. Bone-crushing. Swarming.
There is no doubt that the "swagger" of the Steelers is their defense.
Then it comes to the secondary, and Steelers Nation cringes.
Sure, we have Troy Polamalu, who, as the Defensive Player of the Year, is widely regarded as the best defender in the NFL. When Polamalu is healthy and plays, the Steelers defense is the most dominant in the league.
When Polamalu is injured, that is another story entirely.
Ike Taylor, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent when a new CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) is finally agreed upon. Now that LaMarr Woodley has signed his franchise tender, the Steelers focus needs to be on resigning Ike Taylor.
Though Taylor will never be mistaken as a ball hawk, he has great size (6'2", 195 lbs.) and great speed. He is normally assigned to the opposition's best receiver.
Other than Taylor, the Steelers traded for Bryant McFadden last year during the draft. Similar to Taylor, McFadden has great size (6'0", 190 lbs.), McFadden does not have the skills as Taylor, but still could do a decent job, when healthy, covering teams' No. 2.
Make no mistake, however, McFadden will not be able to move into the top corner slot if the Steelers are unable to bring back Taylor.
After McFadden, the Steelers secondary is borderline horrible.
Will Gay, who has been with the Steelers for four years. Though he showed enough promise three years ago for the Steelers to allow Bryant McFadden to leave as a free agent, he proved in his one year as a starter that he was not good enough to man one side of the field, even opposite of Ike Taylor.
As an unrestricted free agent, I would be SHOCKED if the Steelers were to decide to bring Gay back to the Steelers. Though he did a decent job as a nickel back, he still was not able to handle covering the oppositions' TE, which is a requisite for a nickel back.
Crezdon Butler is an unknown at this point. The Steelers don't normally give rookie corners much playing time, due to the difficulties of learning the Steelers' play book.
In Pittsburgh, it is a prerequisite that the corners play run support, which is one of the reasons that they are so good against the run. That being said, Butler is going to have to have the play book digested enough to at least step into the nickel role, if Pittsburgh does not either sign a free agent at the position or use a high round draft pick on one.
The Steelers other corner is Keenan Lewis. Lewis came to the Steelers in the third round of the 2009 NFL Draft, along with Mike Wallace. Both are good friends from high school, but Lewis has not made near the impact as Wallace at this point of his career.
Lewis has good size (6'0", 190 lbs.) and has good speed, but has not shown an ability to cover the opposition very well in the limited action he has seen.
Is Lewis still in the Steelers plan? Probably, IF he can get onto the field.
At the safety position, the Steelers starters are as good as any in the league. As stated before, Troy Polamalu, when healthy, is one of the league's best game changers. He make the opposition account for him on every play.
Ryan Clark, though not the best in pass coverage, he is better than average, and makes up for the lack of pass coverage by being one of the NFL's hardest hitters.
The depth of the safety position is somewhat of a concern, due to the fact that Polamalu has spent time on the sidelines over the last two years with injury. With the hard-hitting nature of Clark, it would not be a shock if he were to start wearing down at the age of 31.
Ryan Mundy has played decent in short stints on defense. He has great size (6'1", 209 lbs.) and likes to hit, but he is more of a liability in pass coverage than Clark is. On many teams, when a young player can't crack the lineup, people tend to think it is because of inability. In Pittsburgh, when you have players like Clark and Polamalu in front of you, it makes it a reason instead of an excuse.
The Steelers have also re-signed second-year player, Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith. Smith has a TON of potential, but has not even been able to get on the field. As a member of the Steelers practice squad, he has had the ability to learn the playbook, and get practice time, but he needs to come further than that if he wants to be on the field for the Black and Gold.
Making the Weakness the Strength
The Steelers TOP offseason priority has to be bringing back Ike Taylor. Taylor has at least two solid seasons left as a starter before he starts to slow down. At that point, the Steelers can move him to safety, or even the nickel back, if they can find someone to lock down one side of the field.
The other thing the Steelers NEED to do, even though it is not normally what the Steelers do, is bring in a decent free agent who can step on the field and be a starter opposite of Ike Taylor. Who could the Steelers be looking at?
Nnamdi Asomugha (Oakland Raiders)
Not a chance on this planet are the Steelers even going to talk with Asomugha. Though he would be an immediate upgrade, as the best corner in the NFL, the Steelers are NOT going to sign a player from another team and make him the highest paid player on the defense.
Jonathan Joseph (Cincinnati Bengals)
Though he is a great cover corner and taking him from the Bengals would be a bonus on two fronts, it is not going to happen.
Joseph has been arrested for marijuana possession, and the Steelers are probably not going to bring in someone with character issues like that. They got rid of Santonio Holmes, and there is not much of a chance that they will bring in someone that has similar issues.
Antonio Cromartie (New York Jets)
Though Cromartie has above-average ability, he is too much of a loud mouth and head case for the Steelers to bring into their locker room. With nine children to eight women, and an uncanny ability to slam people with no real reason (Matt Hasselbeck), the Steelers are not going to bring him in to the mix unless absolutely necessary.
So, who should the Steelers bring in?
Carlos Rodgers (Washington Redskins)
Rogers was a solid player, until injuries destroyed his 2010 season. Rogers has decent size (6'0", 190 lbs.), would be a perfect compliment opposite of Ike Taylor, IF he can stay healthy.
Josh Wilson (Baltimore Ravens)
Similar to how the Steelers could hurt the Bengals by taking Joseph, if they take Wilson away from the Ravens, it will leave them with Fabian Washington and Domonique Foxworth. Both men have suffered torn ACL injuries in the last two years, and Wilson filled in nicely for both during the injuries.
Wilson is younger than Rodgers (30 to 26), but at only 5'9", he does not exactly fit the mold of a Steelers starting corner.
When it comes to turning the weakness to a strength, I say that the Steelers sign Rodgers and pair him with Ike Taylor. Move McFadden to the nickel and allow Crezdon Butler to compete with Keenan Lewis for the dime role.
The Steelers should then draft another corner in the second or third round of the 2011 NFL draft, and groom him, as they are with Butler and Lewis to compete for the starting positions in the future.
At the safety position, the Steelers need to bring in someone that has the ability to fill in for injury, or to give Polamalu or Clark a rest.
The perfect person for this position is, Bob Sanders (UFA, Indianapolis Colts). Yes, I know he has missed more games than he has played in the last three years. That means that he can come in and not have to be the game breaker he was for the Colts.
Sanders could fill in for Clark or Polamalu, and will probably not draw a ton of interest from other teams, especially ones that have a legitimate shot at winning the Super Bowl.
The Steelers also need to draft another safety, and the names that are the most intriguing to me are:
Quinton Carter, FS, Oklahoma
At 6'1, 211 lbs, and runs the 40 in 4.56 seconds, Carter is better at playing the pass than the run. Though that is not exactly what the Steelers normally look for, it would allow Troy Polamalu to do more blitzing and run support, while Carter helped against the pass.
Carter is projected to be taken in the second round, so there is not a great chance of the Steelers selecting him. That does not mean that it won't happen.
Robert Sands, S, West Virginia
Sands has an amazing size / speed combination. Standing 6'5", 215 lbs, Sands runs the 40 in 4.62.
Having recorded five interceptions in 2010, Sands will have some work to do, to be able to excel at the NFL level. Projected to be drafted in the fourth or fifth round, Sands would be able to learn from the best from Troy Polamalu.
Any way you look at it, the Steelers secondary is really not that far from being beyond respectable. They have some good youth, and some veterans to lend the experience to.
The Steelers have some business to do to get there, but there is no question that two or three moves will bring the Steelers secondary to the elite level to go along with the rest of the defense.