Pittsburgh Steelers Secondary Is the Primary Concern in 2010

Chris Gazze@ChrisG_PITCorrespondent IJune 8, 2010

PITTSBURGH - JANUARY 18:  Troy Polamalu #43 of the Pittsburgh Steelers returns an interception 40 yards for a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens during the fourth quarter of the AFC championship game on January 18, 2009 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

After seeing the quarterback sacked 242 times in 87 games played, many Steelers fans would scream that the offensive line is the team’s top concern heading into training camp.

Two Super Bowl championships during that time frame may say otherwise.

Pittsburgh has been able to win with its porous offensive line, including a line that allowed three sacks in Super Bowl XLIII.

The same cannot be said about the defense.

Lately, it seems the Steelers will go as far as their defense will take them. This past season, it was a missed playoff appearance.

A defense that was regarded as one of the best in recent memory during 2008-09 was only a shell of itself last year.

Despite ranking in the top five in yards-per-game and third in rush defense, the Steelers faltered against the pass.

As the 16th-rated pass defense in the league, the Steelers struggled to recover from losing Bryant McFadden to free agency and Troy Polamalu to injury. This was even more evident as Pittsburgh allowed 22 passing touchdowns, tied for seventh worst in the league.

The cornerbacks did not have an interception until Week 17, when Deshea Townsend and Ike Taylor each made one.

Opposing quarterbacks were able to pick apart the Steelers defense, including Bruce Gradkowski.

The Raiders quarterback looked like an All-Pro, throwing for 308 yards and three touchdowns en route to a shootout victory in which he threw the game-winning touchdown with only 11 seconds remaining in the game.

Failures such as these greatly contributed to the Steelers' absence from the playoffs.

If they want to return, the secondary will have to step up its play to support the strong front seven of the defense, which includes five Pro Bowl players: Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, James Harrison, James Farrior, and LaMarr Woodley.

This group excels at stopping the run, meaning that teams will be looking to exploit the weaker secondary.

The secondary cannot expect the pass-rushing Harrison and Woodley to get to the quarterback every time and will have to be prepared to be attacked.

Polamalu will be an instant upgrade.

After missing nearly the entire 2009 season, Polamalu will return to the field, where he is one of the most dangerous players in the NFL. There is no other playmaker like him, and he makes the players around him better because of his coverage ability and closing speed.

Ryan Clark will be the direct beneficiary of Polamalu’s return. He is an ideal complement to Polamalu and should once again be a reliable coverage safety this fall. However, after being exploited last season in Polamalu’s absence, opponents will be looking to go deep on Clark.

Taylor is another veteran who will be looking for a bounce-back season. After playing at near Pro Bowl level the past few seasons, Taylor regressed last season. He was no longer shutting down the opponent’s top receiver on a consistent basis.

The bigger concern will come at the other corner spot.

The Steelers made a bold move, trading for McFadden, a starter on the 2008 Super Bowl team.

McFadden will be an upgrade over William Gay, who showed he was in over his head as the full-time starter last season. However, McFadden may not be the answer. He was a part of a defense that had trouble stopping the pass and struggled individually adjusting to Arizona’s defensive scheme.

It should be expected that McFadden will recapture his old form returning to a defense where he is comfortable. It should not be expected that he will be an All-Pro, but McFadden should be enough of an upgrade that the opposing quarterback will have to think twice about going his way.

The Steelers can also be excited about some of the up-and-coming young talent behind the starters. Keenan Lewis has the highest upside of the young defensive backs on the Steelers roster. He has the size—6'0", 208 pounds—to challenge at the starting spot.

Joe Burnett and Crezdon Butler, who has reportedly looked good in OTAs, also have the chance to make an impact in the nickel or dime roles.

Pittsburgh will need one or two of these players to take their game to the next level if the secondary wants to make a positive impact this season.

It is necessary to have at least three good corners in today’s passing league, so everyone will have their opportunity.

The bottom line is that it is imperative that there is improvement as a unit.

If so, the Steelers defense can regain its elite form and carry its offense—which will be without Roethlisberger for at least the first four games—not only to victories, but back to the playoffs and maybe to another Super Bowl.


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