The Pittsburgh Steelers had several glaring weaknesses in the 2010 NFL season. While the offensive line is the primary position on everyone’s mind this off-season, cornerback is certainly not far behind.
The Steelers had the 12th ranked pass defense in the NFL last season. While Ike Taylor was solid for the most part he was alone in that regard. After sending a fifth round draft pick to Arizona to bring home their prodigal son, Bryant McFadden proved to be a shell of his former self, and disappointed the organization and fans alike in the process.
William Gay gave little indication that he will ever be more than a nickel/dime back in the NFL, and a mediocre one at that. While the fact that Gay was a part of several big plays during Pittsburgh’s playoff run is still fresh in everyone’s mind, let’s not forget the fact that his inability to cover the slot receiver all season was one of the biggest defensive issues the team had.
High hopes were placed on second year players Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett coming into the season, but neither rose to the occasion. Lewis will have another opportunity this season to have a larger role in the defense, but the ship has all but sailed regarding these two players.
All this being said, opponents found the formula for beating the Pittsburgh Steelers last season, and the Green Bay Packers blew the lid off that can by using the second half of the Super Bowl as an exclamation point. It’s a simple formula really…spread them out and pass, pass, pass.
If the Steelers are going to defend their AFC title in 2011, the secondary will have to be addressed. While they are the least likely suitor for a high caliber free agent like Nnamdi Asomugha, the draft has several players slated to go in the first two rounds that would be an instant upgrade for the Steelers’ pass defense.
Here are the top five corners most likely to be available for the Steelers in rounds one and two come April.
Jimmy Smith is exactly what the Steelers are looking for in terms of a cornerback. Looking at him strictly from a physical standpoint his 6’2”, 211-pound frame is enough to make most NFL scouts salivate.
Smith also runs a low 4.4, has tremendous hands and plays the physical brand of football the Steelers are famous for.
His read and react skills, something the Steeler secondary has little of, would instantly make him an asset as he has proven the ability to read his man while staying conscious of what’s happening in the backfield.
Smith’s ability to read and react makes him not only a great cover corner, but an excellent run stopper as well. His aggressive and physical style of play can also be his greatest weakness however, as he tends to over commit to the run on play action. Smith, while a big specimen is not the best tackler, and will need to be coached on open field tackling in the NFL.
Perhaps the greatest asset Smith brings with his quick read and reaction skills is his ability to play bump and run man coverage or zone equally as well. His size and strength allow him to line up against just about anyone and maintain contact within five yards, while playing the ball very effectively.
On the other hand Smith has an uncanny ability to play between two receivers when his safety help has been drawn away by intermediate seem routes. While it’s a strength, it’s also a weakness, as there are times when he doesn’t trust his over the top help. However, Smith’s ability to come off of a receiver to jump an underneath route in zone coverage is almost as dangerous as trying to throw over his big frame and in front of a top flight safety.
Paired with safeties like Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, Jimmy Smith could be one of the best corners the Steelers have had since the 90’s.
Smith has something of a legacy and a pedigree when it comes to football, following in the footsteps of his four brothers who all played college football. Some of his off the field issues earlier in life undermined his on-field leadership. If Smith can prove to the Steelers, who are looking to stay away from off the field issues, that he can walk the straight and narrow, he could be the corner they are looking for and need.
Brandon Harris is more likely to be a first round pick than a second, and the Steelers could be the team to make that happen.
While he is certainly not the biggest framed player on the board at his position, Harris is every bit of, if not more of an athlete than any of his contemporaries.
The two-time Jim Thorpe award nominee (nation’s best defensive back) has a tremendous understanding of the game after being coached in high school by his father Tim Harris (2007 USA Today National Coach of the Year). Harris also ran track for Miami as freshman.
While his skills are better suited for man-to-man coverage than a zone defensive scheme, Harris has good recognition skills and a great sense of awareness as to where receivers are around him.
Harris, who started as a freshman for the Hurricanes, had a rough first season after coming in as a top-flight recruit out of high school. While he eventually worked to becoming one of nation’s best corners, his biggest weakness has been his inability to get his head around in coverage quick enough to identify the football and adjust for the catch. In similar fashion to a what the Steelers get from Ike Taylor, fans are likely to see more pass deflections than interceptions especially early on in his NFL career.
Aaron Williams is another big cornerback with the frame and speed to play and flourish in the Steelers system.
While he is still relatively immature in terms of football skills, his athletic ability and 6', 204-pound frame have NFL scouts watching Williams with great interest this off-season.
Williams, who has played in almost every game since the beginning of his freshman season, is not only know for his ability to stick with and defend the biggest receivers on the field, but for his standout special teams abilities as well. Proving to be a kick-blocking machine, Williams blocked a school record four kicks in his freshman season alone.
Possessing long arms and solid closing speed, Williams has the ability to knock the ball down both swatting the ball out from in front of receivers and in jump ball situations, but has the propensity to get beat down field as he struggles to gain ground if beaten off the line.
Williams has some growing to do in terms of technique and the fundamental aspects of the game, but the potential and size he possesses could make him a steal in the late first round of the draft. Teams like the Ravens at pick 26 are also interested in Williams.
Brandon Burton has all the tools to be the steal of the NFL draft, and the Steelers would be crazy not to take a good hard look at him in the second round.
With high-end speed, tremendous length and quick feet, Burton has been turning some heads amongst NFL brass, and moving himself up the wish lists of GM’s whose teams are running predominantly zone schemes.
While Burton will need some coaching in certain areas like footwork, staying lower in his backpedal, and how to read receivers off the line, his pure instincts and athletic ability will allow his transition to the NFL to be a quick and successful one.
With tremendous closing speed, Burton has not only shown the ability to deflect passes on a regular basis, but he has also shown the ability to effectively trail receivers down field if beaten off the line.
If Burton is coachable at the next level, and by all scouting reports seems to be, the elimination of sloppy footwork and a slightly high backpedal will in turn eliminate the limited change of direction Burton has displayed at times in coverage.
Jonny Patrick became a first team All-Conference player in 2010, and forced most opponents to throw away from his side of the field.
Patrick is one of those cerebral secondary guys that plays with his whit’s about him, and is perfectly suited to play cornerback in the Steelers’ defensive scheme.
Watching tape of this player, you can see that Patrick knows his responsibilities in zone coverage extremely well, and because of his speed can come off of his initial receiver to cover underneath routes very effectively.
He has a physical side to his game. While he is impressive with a receiver in his sites, perhaps he is even more impressive when his zone is clear and he has the ability to read and attack nearby routes.
Patrick certainly had the ability to line up man-to-man at the line of scrimmage in college often using press and press-bail coverage as well. He is certainly fast enough to cover in the slot early on and his ability to recognize routes will make an instant impact in the Steelers’ secondary as a nickleback if he does not start right away.
As a former wide receiver turned corner, Patrick has tremendous ball skills and the ability to adjust and make tough catches for the interception. He had five interceptions this season for the Cardinals. His final two came in the final game of the season propelling Louisville to a bowl birth.
Patrick is certainly an early second round talent at the very least, but did find himself in trouble operating a vehicle with a suspended license and for his involvement in a domestic incident that was later ruled an accident on the same night.
If he can prove his character to the Steelers, who are once again looking to stay away from players with a propensity to off the field issues, Johnny Patrick could also be a diamond in the rough for the Steelers in the top 100 picks of 2011 NFL Draft.
While the Steelers have enjoyed the route of trading down for more picks later in the draft to stockpile linebackers, the practice of such methods has rarely if ever panned out with players in other positions. The statement holds ever true in terms of cornerbacks and offensive linemen.
For every one corner that ends up becoming a significant contributor after being drafted later than the second or third round in the NFL, the usual hundreds never make it out of training camp their first season.
With the uncertainty of Ike Taylor’s contract situation due to the ongoing CBA turmoil, the Steelers need to add a valuable piece to their secondary and they need to do it early in the draft. It would certainly make sense to see the Steelers draft an offensive lineman on Thursday night, but they cannot afford to pass up what looks like considerable talent available in round two.
If Jimmy Smith is unavailable in round one, look to see them go after Brandon Burton or Johnny Patrick in round two, and expect to see either of them contribute right away.