“Inconsistent” is the perfect word to describe Pittsburgh’s Cornerback play through the first 9 games of 2012. With their current play in mind as well as the state of their contract situations’, it would not shock me if the Steelers decided that an upgrade was in order at Corner during the upcoming offseason. Unless you have fallen asleep during the games, Ike Taylor has been the definition of “inconsistent” this season. One week he is a downright terrible Penalty/Big Play Causing wreck (Tennessee, New York Jets,), the next he is solid (Cincinnati, New York Giants). Taylor however is by far the best of what Pittsburgh’s limited Cornerback pool has to offer and definitely the most experienced (10 years). Yet with Taylor set to make $6 and $7 million dollars worth in base salaries over the next two seasons, the Steelers are in a bit of a quandary. Will they really be willing to pay a now 32 year-old Cornerback that type of money without restructuring? I say they might have to simply because the depth behind Taylor is both mediocre, limited, inexperienced, and on the verge of Unrestricted Free Agency.
Keenan Lewis has also had quite the up and down season as well for the Steelers in 2012. One minute he will bat down a pass like he did in Cincinnati against A.J. Green, the next he will be chasing Tony Moeaki down after he go suckered in on play-action or allowing a pass to clang off his breast-plate. To his credit, Lewis already has 16 Passes Defended this year, but it is evident that teams have enjoyed picking on Pittsburgh’s #2 Cornerback as Peyton Manning did so well in Week 1. Lewis will be an Unrestricted Free Agent after this season, and if the offers coming in are out of Pittsburgh’s price range, I would have a hard time believing the Steelers would be willing to keep Lewis around if they are strained salary cap wise. Alas, the Steelers might have to press on with Taylor and Lewis because Cortez Allen is the only backup with any sort of experience on the Defensive side of the ball (20 Tackles, 4 PD’s) and Curtis Brown has seen almost zero action over his two year career. At least to me, it would not hurt the Steelers at all to add to their talent pool at Cornerback over the coming seasons through the Draft, although it has never been in their nature to Draft Corners early (Chad Scott was the last one Drafted in 1st Round, 1997).
Although it might not be as pressing of a need as the ones in their Defensive Backfield, the Steelers could definitely use some upgrades and/or a developmental prospect or two at their Defensive End spots. Brett Keisel has done a fine job for a 34 year-old manning a 5-Technique position over the last few seasons, and has racked up 26 Tackles and 2.0 Sacks in 9 games this year as a starter. But like Polamalu, Harrison, and Foote, “Father Time” could be working against “The Beard,” and one has to wonder how much longer he can last and continue to play at a high-level.
Opposite Keisel, Ziggy Hood has been somewhat of a disappointment over his 4 year career while he has been groomed as Aaron Smith’s replacement. Through 57 Games and 32 Starts, Hood has only amassed 80 Tackles and 6.5 Sacks. While the 5-Technique position is not predicated on monster statistics, Hood has shown inconsistencies at the point of attack (notably last week’s Kansas City game) against the run and as a Two-Gap player. Hood will be an Unrestricted Free Agent after the 2013 season ends, and I will be intrigued to see how he performs over the next season and a half and what the Steelers decide to do with their 1st Round pick from The 2009 Draft.
Behind “The Beard” and Hood are 2011 1st Round pick Cameron Heyward and former Undrafted Free Agent Al Woods. Both have seen limited action this year (Heyward: 9 Tackles 1.0 Sack, Woods: 3 Tackles) so it will be interesting to see how each player develops over the coming years. I say this only because the Steelers do not have a Practice Squad player behind Heyward and Woods, and some depth could be sorely used at both 5-Technique spots. Granted, Pittsburgh’s Defense does not necessarily need a “High-Round Investment” or two at Defensive End right now like other positions I have described and will describe. Yet if something happens to one or more of the “Top 3″ in the rotation over the next season or two, a viable starter-in-waiting or solid backup could stand to be added to the roster and developed by Defensive Line Coach John Mitchell.
Although the Steelers boast one of the N.F.L.’s most potent pass-catching quartets (when healthy of course) in the League, I can see Colbert & Co. setting their sights’ on a Wide Receiver during next April’s Draft. Like it or not, but the Steelers might have to cover their bases at the Wide Receiver position soon as Antonio Brown is the only one at the position to be under contract for the 2014 season at the moment.
A possible decision on a Wide Receiver will largely hinge however on Mike Wallace and whatever the Steelers’ brass decides is the best possible course of action to take with him. While Wallace has done some nice things this season since his hold-out during Training Camp and the Preseason (42 Catches, 539 Yards, 6 TD’s), he has had some “Clifford Franklin/Rashid “Hot Hands” Hanon” struggles to catch the ball with some consistency this season (Cincinnati game), and will be an Unrestricted Free Agent after the 2012 campaign ends.
Although the Steelers can always give Wallace the franchise tag next year to keep him around for one last year. I nevertheless question whether or not the Steelers would be willing to make a large one-season investment in Wallace (Dwayne Bowe received a $9.5 million dollar tag last year) if long-term talks fizzle, or if the team decides it would be easier to re-up the emerging Emmanuel Sanders at a lower price tag instead.
To me, Pittsburgh could try to find Wallace’s (or Sanders’ if he is replaced in 2014, RFA after this season) potential replacement in this season’s Draft. What the Steelers have lacked since Roethlisberger’s Rookie season has been a tall and large (6’2″+ 200+ lbs.) pass-catching target on the outside to stretch the top off of opposing Defenses to replace Wallace and work outside the hashes to compliment Antonio Brown. With the Offensive Line beginning to gel nicely, a big target at the Wide Receiver position is the only type of personnel the Steelers’ Offense is missing at the moment to become a truly formidable unit. I mean can you imagine the Red Zone passing game possibilities with Heath Miller and a 6’4″ Wide Receiver threat opposite him for Fade routes?! I can, and it makes me salivate as a fan to imagine said possibilities.
First of all, if you the readers want to criticize me for “thinking about next season” or “giving up on 2012,” let me just say the following: The Defense will need a significant make-over during the next few seasons, and if a team is willing to give Wallace “V-Jax, Larry Fitz, Etc..” money then I say the Steelers should just let “Captain Body Catch” go on his merry way and use the money to keep the talent they already have in place.
So do not fault me for actually taking into consideration what could be two to three more “transitional” offseasons through the Draft period. Granted, I still hold out hope that this team can find ways to win a game or two without their Two-time Super Bowl winning Quarterback. But seriously, if you believe that Conference Title hopes are sill alive let me remind you that this is not 1994, 1995, 2005, or even 2010. Those teams had solid ground attacks (especially 1994, 1995, and 2005) and reliable Defensive units to make up for significant Quarterback deficiencies/absences.
Thus, even if Leftwich and/or Batch play mistake-free football, the Steelers will still have to rely on a Defensive unit which has issues forcing Turnovers for much needed extra possessions (T-30th 9 Takeaways), is only average at 3rd Down stops (16th 38.3% Converted Against), and cannot consistently pressure the Quarterback (T-22nd 16 Sacks). Oh, and did I mention that the Defense has blown Five 4th Quarter leads over their last Nine games?!
While the schedule outside of Baltimore is definitely favorable for the Steelers to back into the postseason as a Wild Card (Cleveland 2x, Cincinnati, Dallas, and) San Diego, I truly fear what will happen if this team has to play a postseason road game without their starting signal-caller. I mean, they lost to Tim <bleepin’> Tebow last January. I care not to think about it, but consider how merciless the beating will be if the Steelers have to travel and play against a team like New England up in Foxborough, the Manning-led Broncos in Denver, or the Ravens hell-bent on revenge in Baltimore. I can only envision an even worse tail-whipping than that dreadful 28-3 Divisional Playoff Loss to Drew Bledsoe and Curtis Martin in the fog back in January of 1997.
Negativity aside, am however intrigued to watch the next Seven-plus games unfold as this upcoming gauntlet will be an ultimate “gut-check” opportunity and test of character for many players on this roster. This period could ultimately prove which players might be in danger of being replaced, and thus not in the franchise’s long term plans after this or next season ends. But even if the team begins to tank, there is still some good news as I will begin to pepper in some Draft related articles as the year winds down to give you the readers some news, info., and food for thought on potential draft prospects and areas of potential need like I did last offseason.
So come on Steelers, prove me wrong, kick some tail down the stretch, “nut up,” finish respectable, and know that “Steeler Nation” and myself will be rooting you on every step of the way!
Injury Reports Courtesy of: Steelers.com