Well, not only are the top tier free agent cornerbacks gone in this year's free agent crop. So too are the second level guys - free agents like Chris Carr that Steelers fans thought might land in Pittsburgh after incumbent CB Bryant McFadden headed west to Phoenix to join the Cardinals. In my mind, that just about settles any debate about whether or not the Steelers will draft a CB in either Round 1 or Round 2 of this April's NFL Draft. But that's a conversation for another day, and quite frankly not tremendously important in terms of what defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and the 2009 Steelers defense will look like.
By that I mean, even if we do draft a CB on day one of this year's draft, the 2009 version of the Steel Curtain won't be leaning too heavily on him unless injuries force our hand. It's just not the way things work in Pittsburgh. Rookies are more likely to have a red-shirt year of sorts in year one than they are to be thrust into significant action. Even studs like LaMarr Woodley were forced to patiently wait their turn and learn the ropes of LeBeau's complex defensive schemes as rookies. Instead, LeBeau's defense will largely be relying on Ike Taylor, Deshea Townsend and William Gay. We have discussed William Gay and his impressive, albeit limited, showing thus far in his career. I am still a bit nervous on that front, but only time will tell I suppose.
Deshea Townsend on the other hand, has been around long enough that we have a better idea of what to expect out of the wily veteran out of Alabama. Townsend, who will turn 34 at about the start of the 2009 season, has had some very interesting statistical years in recent memory. Now granted, measuring the performance of defensive backs is a tricky endeavor for a myriad reasons that I don't feel I need to elaborate on. But still, let's use what's at our disposal - yards per attempt - to see what we can learn about Deshea the past five years.
I don't have every last number in front of me, but I do know that Deshea was tied for 4th in the NFL over the course of 2004-2007, and that his 2008 total only lowered his 5 year average. So the bottom line is he's quietly been one of the more under appreciated and effective CBs in the league for the better part of this decade. This is all the more remarkable when you consider he's done his best work since turning 29 years of age, which by just about everybody's rationale is past his prime physical years in his mid to late 20s.
That said, Deshea has been a little bit of a feast or famine type cornerback in that same time frame. Those 2005 and 2007 numbers are exquisite. But those 2004 and 2006 numbers leave plenty to be desired. Again, there are too many variables that go into whether or not an NFL passing play is successful outside of simply how well the CB played his assignment in either man or zone coverage.
Nevertheless, when I've thought back on Townsend's career this offseason as I attempted to get a complete understanding of what our secondary may look like next year, I've thought to myself - 'can Deshea really drink from the fountain of youth once more in 2009 and play like he has in 2007 and 2008? Or will he miss multiple games again in 2009 like he did in 2008 after going the first decade of his career essentially injury free? When he has a full compliment of healthy defensive helpers around him, I'm more than confident rolling the dice with our savvy 34 year old corner for one more year.
But make no mistake about it - the 2009 Steelers will need Deshea Townsend to play somewhere closer to his 2005, 2007 and 2008 performances than his less impressive years if the defense is going to again sport a top ranked pass defense. Even if William Gay does step up and play soundly in Bryant McFadden's place, 2 CBs isn't nearly enough to get the job done in today's pass happy National Football League. And with nobody besides a special teams stalwart (A. Madison) behind Gay and Townsend on the depth chart, and no free agent help seemingly in sight, the Steelers' fortunes in 2009 on the defensive side of the ball will be closely tied to the play of our 34 year old veteran CB, Deshea Townsend.