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With just a handful of days to go before the start of training camp for the 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers, back to our look at the various positional battles that will take place in Latrobe and throughout the course of the coming season. Many thanks to NYSteelersFan4 for his two contributions to this endeavor in recent weeks, both of which have been included at the end of the post. Moving on now to the situation in the defensive backfield - one of the areas that struggled most mightily in 2009 after the injury sustained by Troy Polamalu. With the release of this year's MSP Steelers Annual now available, I thought i'd kill two bids with one stone by promoting it a bit more as well as saving myself a bit of time. So, what follows is my breakdown of the DB situation in the first article of the publication that covers the entire roster situation heading into the new year. - Michael Bean -
After a mind bogglingly dominant season in 2008, the Steelers defense returned to earth last year. The final statistics suggested that the Steelers were one of the league's better defenses, but no fan would try to argue that Dick LeBeau's group played up to its potential. The rush defense wasn't the issue - Pittsburgh went the first 14 games without allowing a 100-yard rusher before Ray Rice ran wild in Week 15. It was the play of the inexperienced secondary that let teams back into games and ultimately cost the Steelers a playoff berth.
If All World safety Troy Polamalu returns - and remains - healthy in 2010, the Steelers' secondary woes might just become a distant memory. Polamalu played in just five games last season, appearing for the final time in a Week 10 loss against the Bengals. Success in the NFL rarely hinges on one player, particularly on defense, but the reality is the Steelers were 4-1 with Polamalu in the lineup and 5-6 when #43 wasn't able to go.
Returning for his fourth year as Polamalu's running mate is free safety Ryan Clark, who appeared to be halfway out the door in March during free agency. Just as Clark seemed poised to sign with the Miami Dolphins, the Steelers and Clark came to terms on a reasonable 3-year contract. After opting not to re-sign veteran reserve Tyrone Carter this offseason, the Steelers wisely went to work acquiring depth and experience at safety. They began by signing veteran free agent safety Will Allen, a former 2004 fourth-round draft pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and has played the last 6 seasons there. Allen should play quite a few snaps as a nickel back, perhaps utilized like Deshea Townsend was in 2008.
Joining Allen as a primary reserve is third-year FS Ryan Mundy. After being plagued by injuries during his rookie year and looking lost and unreliable last season, Mundy is hopefully ready to finally contribute in 2010. Given the injury history of Polamalu and Clark, it's imperative that Mundy has prepared himself adequately to take advantage of the next opportunity that inevitably presents itself.
The situation at cornerback is more complicated and interesting. Ike Taylor, the team's top cover corner, is coming off a down year just like the rest of the secondary. Taylor didn't look a step slow last year, or outclassed physically in any way for that matter. He just missed a crucial assignment here and there, and failed to make momentum changing plays when he was in position to do so. Taylor owns an infamously repellent set of hands, so it wasn't the missed interceptions that were surprising. Instead, it was the fact that the veteran looked lost on several occasions, as well as not quite as engaged and interested in taking on all challenges like he normally has in recent years. Eager to get back to his swaggin' ways, Taylor reportedly upped the ante this spring with his already legendary offseason conditioning regiment. Don't be surprised if Taylor's eighth season in Pittsburgh is his best to date.
The young cornerbacks on the Steelers depth chart took notice of Taylor's work ethic and focus this spring. That's music to the ears of Steeler Nation, as the trio of William Gay, Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett all struggled in one way or another last season. Gay experienced potentially invaluable growing pains during his first full year as a starter as teams picked on him relentlessly. By season's end, Gay had claimed the crown of 'least popular player' from Willie Colon, thankfully ending his three year reign in the doghouse. Gay recently admitted that he thought he had 'arrived' last summer after excelling in his complimentary role in '08, and then being named a starter for '09 following McFadden's departure. Consequently, Gay didn't prepare quite as diligently as he probably needed to given the big leap he was about to make.
Meanwhile, neither Joe Burnett nor Keenan Lewis had memorable rookie campaigns. Lewis was bothered by lingering back issues and played only sparingly; the defining moment of Burnett's season was when he dropped a 'gimme' interception late in the game against the Oakland Raiders - a pick that would have sealed the game and ultimately put the Steelers into the playoffs. Lewis in particular has looked sharp during spring practices and could conceivably start at some point this season. I include myself in any camp that believes Burnett will contribute in '10.
All three might be chasing Bryant McFadden, who the Steelers reacquired from the Arizona Cardinals on day three of April's draft. McFadden's lone season in the desert was unremarkable, neither great nor awful. His parting gift to Arizona fans was two putrid outings during the playoffs last January. Because of McFadden's experience in Dick LeBeau's system, he will in all likelihood start the year as the #2 CB, leaving Gay, Burnett and Lewis to be primarily deployed in various nickel and dime packages.
Fifth-round draft pick Crezdon Butler will try to nudge his way onto the back end of the crowded depth chart. The speedy but raw CB out of Clemson isn't lacking in self-confidence, so you never know how he might perform in Latrobe. More than likely however, Butler will spend the year on the practice squad learning the ins and outs of playing arguably the most difficult position in all of sports. Finally, Anthony Madison, Pittsburgh's veteran special teams ace, could be a camp casualty if the crop of young players seem to be developing. I wouldn't expect that to happen before the final round of cuts though, because it's a safe bet that Tomlin and his staff will be keeping a close eye on special teams play during camp and the early stages of the preseason.
Previous Primers (Offense)
Previous Primers (Defense)*
* (thank you NYSteelersFan4 for the unexpected but outstanding help)