For the next couple of weeks I will be discussing the state of certain positions on the Black and Gold’s roster that are either enigmatic or intriguing moving into the 2011 regular season. One of the positions I believe that Steeler Nation should be particularly interested in watching is Cornerback. This article will seek to break down the starters, those fighting for roster spots, and what we can expect from this group as a whole heading into 2011.
It comes as no surprise that the starters will be the guys that have manned both spots 3 out of the last 4 years together. It is comforting to know that both of these veterans have had not only experience playing in LeBeau’s defensive schemes, but have had a measure of success playing together as well. Starting in the LCB spot will yet again be Ike Taylor who just inked a 4 year contract a week and a half ago. Every week for the last 4 seasons Ike has faced the top WR that the opposition had to offer, every week Ike quietly but consistently does a fantastic job in not only shut-down coverage, but tackling as well. Because of his “stone hands” Ike doesn’t garner the types of press accolades that his elite peers do, but Taylor has grown and matured into a steady and rock solid performer that works well within the defense. Not bad for a 2003 4th Round project that didn’t play CB until his Senior year at Louisiana-Lafayette. Bryant McFadden (B-Mac) will man the RCB spot for the 3rd season in the last 4. While not as physically gifted as Ike, McFadden when healthy plays a very physical brand of football for a CB. Always a good tackler, McFadden is adept at limiting Y.A.C. and does well enough in coverage against #2 Receivers to keep the opposition at bay. B-Mac also is good for 2-3 INT’s a season, a statistic that is always welcome from a #2 CB.
Outside of Taylor and B-Mac, when one peers down the depth chart things start to murky as to what CB’s will be making the team. At least 4 CB’s will be vying for significant playing time behind the starters this season. It is my goal to break down the strengths and weaknesses of each reserve, what it will take for them to make the roster, and what they will ultimately mean to the Steelers and the rest of the Defense in 2011. To begin, I will start with William Gay. To be fair, Gay has been criticized unfairly at times for his poor play, but the “proof is in the pudding” when the tape is put on. I mean put on games where the Defense are spread out with 4 wide sets (G.B., N.E., N.O., and Balt. w/healthy Todd Heap) and William Gay looks like a pre-pubescent 11 year old girl who can’t find her training bra when trying to either cover the TE or a 3rd or 4th WR. His tenure in 2009 as a starting RCB was absolutely putrid in terms of coverage skills and tackling. Kudos for Colbert for working out a deal with Coach Ken in AZ to bring B-Mac back in 2010, because if Gay were still starting Brady, Brees, and Rogers would have carved up the secondary with their 3rd and 4th Receivers even more. How or why the F.O. actually re-signed him to a contract instead of putting a younger guy in his place is ridiculous. Sure he is a ST contributor, but any UDFA can come in and fill that role. In my opinion, after 4 years enough is enough. Competing with Gay for the Nickel spot is another underachiever: Keenan Lewis. Lewis has struggled with maturity and controlling himself on the field over the last two seasons. James Walker of ESPN.com has discussed how Lewis is trying to get better mentally as well as emotionally on the field. Walker points to how after the uninspired and mistake-prone performance of Lewis’ start in Denver during the last pre-season, Lewis punched and broke a mirror in the locker room. Two years he has been in Coach Tomlin’s “dog-house” and this should be a make or break season for Lewis. He has the size, speed, physicality and talent to succeed, and I’m pulling for him to make the roster.
Behind Gay and Lewis are three guys who with a strong training camp could really shake up the roster: Crezdon Butler, and Rookies Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen. Butler is one guy that did not done much outside of Special Teams for the Steelers during his Rookie season of 2010. Drafted in the 5th Round it appeared that the Coaching Staff wanted to bring him along slowly to earn a year of seasoning before competing for P.T. on Defense. To be honest I’m not sure what to expect from Butler, however if he impresses over the next couple weeks, proves himself to be competent on Special Teams, Gay or Lewis could be expendable. As for the Rookies, Brown seems like a guy who could push for the Nickel spot around the 2/3 point in the season if he grasps the Defense well enough. Having played at Texas, Brown had to deal with the bevy of teams in The Big XII South (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Baylor) that spread the Defense and aired the ball out over his career. He has good size (6′ 185 lbs.), enough speed (4.5 sec 40), and plenty of experience to be a physical Nickel CB in the N.F.L.. His bio. on cbs.sportsline.com describes how at Texas he played on every Special Teams unit in college. These skills could prove worthy for the Steelers his first couple of seasons on the team. In addition, Brown was a great Receiver coming out of High School and should have excellent hands which is a skill that should always come in handy. The final CB I will discuss here is Allen. I haven’t seen a lot of Allen, but I did do some research. After reading his bio. on cbs.sportsline.com, Allen is a guy that reminds me a lot of Ike Taylor. Great size (6′ 1″ 197 lbs.), good speed (4.5 sec 40), yet raw (started playing football Senior year of High School), and played at a small school (The Citadel). The tools are there, yet it is up to LeBeau, new DB Coach Carnell Lake, and Allen himself as to whether he can develop and emerge as Ike Taylor 2.0 over the coming years. Much like Brown and Butler, Allen will need strong performances in camp over the next few weeks and in the preseason to play on Special Teams and show enough at CB in terms of skills to earn a spot on the 2011 roster.
So what exactly is there to say about the Steelers’ CB’s heading into 2011? Well to state the obvious, the Steelers are in good hands while running their Base D and having their two experienced and heady starters in the game. Where the Steelers have gotten into trouble in years past and might again this year is the lack of depth at the position. The Steelers have now been exposed by teams spreading them out with 3-5 WR’s and making the Steelers use 3-4 CB’s at a time. Time and time again these teams have mercilessly and ruthlessly exploited the likes of William Gay and others who cannot effectively deal with speedy slot Receivers and athletic TE’s when matched up against them. Hopefully by Week 1 in Baltimore some semblance of hope can be seen with the best of the reserves ready for action. Otherwise, this could be an Achilles Heel for the Steelers in 2011.