Justin K. Aller
With no seasoned veteran set to replace their top cornerback when injury struck, the Steelers suffered at the hands of their secondary's inexperience.
With little left to play for, the San Diego Chargers spoiled Ben Roethlisberger's homecoming by beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in their own stadium, in week 14; and they did it by taking advantage of the absence of Ike Taylor.
When Taylor fell to a fractured ankle early in week thirteen's win in Baltimore, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown did an admirable job of stepping up, in standard "standard" fashion. Unfortunately, their performances on Sunday warranted far less exultation.
Brown was beat early and often as he played the outside corner opposite Keenan Lewis in nickel packages, allowing Allen to play the slot, a position he has played all season long. While this strategy was forged to protect Allen from being overwhelmed in only his second season, and first as the nickelback; it relied too heavily on the ability of another second year player in Brown. Brown proved to be a liability on the outside with every Rivers pass.
Josh Victorian, who was promoted to the active roster less than 24 hours before kick off, was put in to replace Brown to no avail. Victorian was attacked immediately, and beaten by a back shoulder throw for a Chargers touchdown. The Steelers inexperienced corners had no answer for the physical receivers from San Diego.
Coach Norv Turner exploited the Steelers young defensive backs with crossing route combinations, using them as legal pick plays. A few tip-toed the line which separates smart scheme from penalized offense, but none were called. Brown and Allen struggled to adapt quickly, and the Charger receivers were able to create separation, secure catches, and sustain drives.
Turner also employed plenty of short drop, quick throws. This prevented the Steelers pass rush from having sufficient time to apply pressure. Because the quick passing game protected the Chargers young makeshift line from having to defend the Steelers pass rush, Pittsburgh got little penetration. Rivers ability to get the ball out quickly, made the most of Turner's route combinations forcing the Steelers young corners to adapt, which they failed to do.
In the past, the Steelers enjoyed the luxury of having experienced veterans waiting in line for such an occasion. Players like Bryant McFadden and William Gay who failed to lock down starting roles, were still able to step in on short notice with wisdom intact. Once Taylor was lost, the lack of that veteran guile became exposed and will be the responsibility of Dick LeBeau to compensate for this week in practices.
Allen and Brown have all the physical tools to perform above the level they showed today, although the same could be said for the entire Steelers roster in week 14. However, games such as these are necessary when grooming young players. Tough losses serve as a hot burner, to teach young hands a lesson. Today, those young hands got burned.
When the Steelers arrive in Dallas to take on the Cowboys in week 15, they will be playing for their playoff lives. With the numerous playmakers on the Cowboys offense, it will be upon the secondary once again to keep the game close enough for the Steelers offense to add another win to their record. If the Cowboys are allowed to move the ball at ease like the Chargers, the Steelers season could come to a disastrous end.
Allen and Brown have a lot of growing up to do over the next week