The Great 18: Unit Evaluation of the Pittsburgh Steelers

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The Great 18: Unit Evaluation of the Pittsburgh Steelers
The NFL's free agency period, set to commence Feb. 29, is looming. Here at RealFootball365.com, we are in the process of setting the Pittsburgh Steelers' priorities before they delve into the free-agent market. Nine through 18 have been discussed, leaving the eight most important positions the Steelers will have to address this offseason. Here are the links for 9-18.

9. Outside linebacker; 10. Inside linebacker.
11. Nose tackle; 12. Strong safety.
13. Quarterback; 14. Running back.
15. Tight end; 16. Punter; 17. Kicker; 18. Long snapper.

Getting into No. 8 on the list, you really can't have enough of this position. Clearly, division rival Cincinnati feels that way, judging by its last two drafts. Baltimore ran out of them early last season and finished in the bottom third of the league. Cleveland didn't have any at the start of the season, and the ones it did have were either too young or just not very good.

The Steelers happen to be in a fairly decent situation at this spot, but much like the adage suggests, if one of them goes down, a season can turn south in a hurry. Coming in at No. 8 in the great 18 ...

8. Cornerback

Ike Taylor, sixth season; Deshea Townsend, 11th season; Bryant McFadden, fourth season; William Gay, second season; Grant Mason, second season; Anthony Madison, third season; Allen Rossum, 11th season; Mike Lorello, third season.

Ike Taylor's performance against Seattle in Week 5 was the shining example of not only why the Steelers gave him a five-year contract extension after the Super Bowl-winning 2005 season, but to the potential the rangy Taylor has. He seemed to be invisible to Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck and was able to provide the rare game where a cornerback completely shuts down an entire offense on his own.

It wasn't long ago that Taylor was in former Steelers coach Bill Cowher's doghouse. Last season, not only did he stop Seattle's powerful passing game (true, the Seahawks were without Deion Branch), but looking back on New England's aerial display against the Steelers, Taylor actually played a very strong game against WR Randy Moss.

His huge gains came from plays where Taylor was supposed to have deep help and was assigned to cover the underneath routes. Taylor's coverage of Cincinnati's Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh twice last season were displays of beauty. He's on the cusp of a Pro Bowl selection.

Deshea Townsend, Taylor's batterymate at the opposite corner position, was as solid as always. He's not going to shut down any receiver the way Taylor can, but his value comes in veteran savvy and the ability to provide excellent run support. Going into his 11th season, the Steelers have to think long term and consider replacing their boundary corner for the past six seasons.

There, the battle at cornerback gets interesting. Bryant McFadden has shown flashes of becoming a great NFL corner, but an ankle injury clearly bothered him most of last season and did not give the team any reason to think he is ready to start in 2008.

To be fair though, McFadden has started plenty of games and saw lots of action when healthy as the team's primary nickel back. However, William Gay, the soon-to-be second-year man from Louisville, showed fantastic potential, performing well on special teams, and a knack for the big play in the preseason.

McFadden is bigger, which was preferred under Cowher's regime, but coach Mike Tomlin, a former defensive backs coach, made Gay his first draft pick in the secondary. McFadden is in the last year of his rookie contract and he will have to really step up.

Even with those two battling to become Townsend's eventual replacement, Anthony Madison and Grant Mason may end up being kept around for depth and special teams assignments, even though neither player was overly impressive in either capacity last season.

Just like Gay was taken in the fifth round last season, it's never been the Steelers' policy to not draft talent because of the current roster. If they have the chance to find a great athlete they can filter in at corner or even safety, plus return punts and kicks (Allen Rossum has a small chance of making the roster in 2008), don't be surprised to see them tag a corner even as high as the first day.

It's football; you can't have enough good athletes on a team. Corner is one of the most athletic positions on the field.

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