For my third installment of positional battles and previews for the 2011 Steelers, I would like to turn my attention to the Safeties. For the 6th season in a row, the Steelers have the luxury of starting both Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark at Strong and Free Safety. Both of these guys not only have a large amount of experience playing together, but provide some stability with their play on the back end of a shaky Steeler Secondary. However, the Safety position behind Clark and Polamalu in terms of depth is not only thin, but is also filled with either below average or untested players. For this article I intend to not only provide an analysis of what to expect from Polamalu, Clark and the rest of the Safeties in 2011, but also discuss what this lack of depth could ultimately lead to for the Steelers Defense in my final analysis.
Is there a more exciting defensive player to watch in the N.F.L. not named Troy Polamalu? Ravens fans may disagree, but in my homer-istic opinion (and the opinions of millions of N.F.L. fans as well) Troy is the best damn Safety in the N.F.L.. And Troy has provided Steeler Nation with incredible highlights and some of the best damn Strong Safety play ever recorded since assuming the starting role in 2004. I am excited to see how Troy follows up his 2010 Defensive Player of the Year season that ended with a stat line of: 63 Tackles, 7 INT’s, 1 Forced Fumble, 1 Fumble Recovery, 1 Sack, and 5 Tackles For Loss.Unfortunately for Troy, (much like Aaron Smith) the injury bug has not been kind to him over the last couple of seasons. He lost 3 weeks in 2007 to a sprained knee, 2009 was a disaster for the Steelers after Troywas never the same after a Week 1 MCL injury, and Troy was hobbled at the end of last season due to a troubled Achilles. Compounding his injury issues, Troy is also no “spring chicken” either, and the wear and tear on his frame has begun to show with all the injuries he has accumulated over the last few seasons. However, Polamalu still has a helluva lot of football left in him, and I hope he can get the most out of it and help the Steelers in the process by staying healthy. In terms of his future with the Steelers, Troy’s contract ends following the 2011 season. Hopefully the Front Office steps up to the plate (which they inevitably will) and signs him to a contract that will allow him to retire in the Black and Gold. I’m just really hoping he can stay healthy in 2011 and beyond, because it would be such a shame to see a talent like that lose years off his stellar career due to injury.
Clark has provided an unspectacular but steady compliment to Polamalu since coming to Pittsburgh in 2006. While not the best Free Safety in the League at pass coverage and recovery skills, Clark brings a toughness to the position that helps to make the Steelers’ Defense one of the most tough, and feared in the N.F.L.. Clark’s tackling may be sloppy at times, but he has averaged 88 per season since 2008 and can usually get the ball carrier down if he decides not to try to decapitate them. In terms of turnovers Clark is usually good for registering at least two to three picks a season, a stat that is always welcome from Free Safety position. In terms of his future with the Steelers, Clark is entering the 2nd year of a 4 year contract with the Steelers that will expire when he is 34 years old at the end of the 2013 season. That being said, the Steelers should be at least aware that Clark may be done in a couple of years and may need to upgrade the Free Safety spot.
Ryan Mundy has slowly but surely been gaining playing time on Defense over the last couple of seasons. Taken in the 6th Round in The 2008 N.F.L. Draft, Mundy has risen from the practice squad, to a Special Teams player on the regular roster, to now taking snaps with the Defense over the last two seasons. Last year he filled in for Troy when he was hurt at the end of the season and did a decent enough job that he should get a look in the preseason as the top backup. Hopefully Mundy won’t have to gain experience if somebody is injured, but he could end up being a valuable insurance policy nonetheless. Because at this point Mundy is the top backup Safety due to him having the most experience playing in the Steelers’ Defense. In 2011 though, Mundy should see extensive time on Special Teams and keep learning the nuances of the Lebeau Defense with the hope of seeing the field a lot more in a couple of years or so.
Allen has known Mike Tomlin since their days in Tampa together, and Allen has provided some decent Special Teams play for the Steelers last season after signing as a Free Agent. While not necessarily a starter or stellar all around player, Allen is much like a Mewelde Moore, a veteran guy that can chip in with little things, a solid professional with character that Tomlin knows and can trust, as well as gives some decent play on Special Teams. Since he has not started a game with the Steelers and very little since the 2006 season, I’m not sure what to expect from him if he is called upon to shore up the Safety position if injuries occur. But if he is relegated just to Special Teams duties, Allen should continue to give the Steelers a serviceable effort in a spot that has plagued them over the years. If Allen’s play diminishes and he becomes expendable, the two young guys I’ll discuss below may be ready to take advantage.
After making the Practice Squad a season ago as an UDFA, Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith is looking to take advantage of a thin depth chart and achieve not only a roster spot, but maybe some playing time on Defense if injury strikes the starters. Cromartie-Smith should get his shot this season as a Special Teams player and where he goes from there is purely up to him and the competition facing him. I like the size that he brings to the Safety position (6’2″ and 210 lbs.) and hope that if he gets a chance to play he uses it effectively. It will just be a matter of his own hard work and the coaching staff’s efforts to develop and hone his skills to see if the Steelers have signed themselves another UDFA steal or just a decent Special Teams player at best. I for one would be thrilled if Cromartie-Smith or the guy below showed enough promise in the preseason to warrant some hope for depth at the Safety position.
Much like Cromartie-Smith, UDFA Brett Greenwood could be another guy to benefit from the lack of depth at Safety. I’ve been researching this guy on the web, and from what I’ve read, Greenwood could actually be a guy that could play his way onto the roster with a strong preseason. Being a UDFA shouldn’t faze this kid one bit, and Greenwood has had experience facing long shot odds at making a team. Enrolling at the University Iowa in 2006, Greenwood walked-on successfully and redshirted his first season in Iowa City. After that, Greenwood was a 4 year starter at Free Safety for the Hawkeyes and earned 2nd Team All-Big 10 Honors twice (2009 and 2010).
Much like his Safety-mate at Iowa and current New York Giant Tyler Sash, Greenwood not only had a nose for the ball at Iowa, but displayed some decent hands for a Safety. In his four seasons, Greenwood recorded 12 interceptions (5 of them coming his Senior season). He has enough size (6′ and 200 lbs.), playing experience, and displayed the ability to overcome odds that should benefit him in Training Camp and Preseason. If Greenwood can display enough speed (4.67 40 yard Dash at his Pro Day) that it takes to succeed in the N.F.L. as a Safety the Steelers may be getting a real diamond in the rough. Greenwood and Cromartie-Smith should both get shots to make the team this year on Special Teams. I truly hope for depth’s sake as well as the future of the Secondary that both are successful and can develop into fine under the radar players that the Steelers and Kevin Colbert have a knack for finding.
Much like years past, this starting group is fine and should be in tip-top shape to do some damage this season. Nevertheless, much like years past, this group has little to no depth, and if Troy and/or Clark gets hurt, the Steelers Defense could be in for some serious trouble. I mean it’s bad enough when teams spread the D out 4 wide and the backup CB’s are destroyed like Kurt Russell was in “Imaginationland” by The Woodland Christmas Critters. But if the last line of defense in the form of Troy and Clark are somehow injured, and the young guys aren’t up to snuff, it is going to be an absolute dumpster fire in the secondary for the Steelers in 2011.
I’m enough of an optimist however, and I’m crossing my fingers that Troy and Ryan stay healthy, because they do a fantastic job (especially Troy) when both are healthy and firing on all cylinders. I’m also holding out hope that Mundy or some of the young guys with something to prove like Cromartie-Smith or Greenwood show some promise this year if they are forced into action. Who knows? Maybe this lack of depth if injuries occur could prove positive, because the young guys will be thrown into the fire instead of rotting on the bench. Yet if injuries strike, and the young guys don’t perform or aren’t deemed worthy of keeping in the future, the Steelers should be looking towards the future come April 2012 at the Safety position.