If you give your opponent an inch, they will take a mile; and then they will peel you off the bottom of their shoes.
This was the undoing of the Pittsburgh Steelers down the final stretch of the 2012 regular season - they gave their opponents too many opportunities to beat them. It was bad enough the Steelers offense had to cope without franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but their defense developed an equally destructive problem.
Pittsburgh's secondary got off to a slow start in 2012, but once they shook off the rust, they were as good as ever. Veterans Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis were given outside responsibilities, while sophomores Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown were expected to hold down the nickel- and dime-back roles, respectively. While the team's plans were laden with good intentions, they were a bit presumptuous.
Taylor showed the most rust early on, but Lewis stepped up his game to balance the equation. Allen even played remarkably well for a fourth-round pick in his second season, beating out teammate and draft-mate Brown for nickel duties. The trio of Taylor, Lewis and Allen were more than serviceable; unfortunately opponents figured out how to beat Pittsburgh's top-ranked pass defense - use more receivers.
When Taylor broke his ankle, everyone was forced up a rung on the company ladder; which finally exposed the inexperience of the roster behind Allen. Brown looked overwhelmed and was soon replaced with Josh Victorian. Victorian in turn gave up a few plays, only to see Lewis and Allen deal with leg injuries of their own. These new problems forced Brown back onto the field with no serious contingency plan left.
With Lewis now gone to the New Orleans Saints and Allen promoted to the starting spot opposite Taylor, the rest of the defensive back depth chart is anyone's guess. Brown and Victorian are returning to make up for their 2012 tour of the woodshed, but they will have plenty of competition from fellow teammates DeMarcus Van Dyke and Justin King.
Also looking to make an impact, is fifth-round draft pick Terry Hawthorne, whom secondary coach Carnell Lake has already admitted excitement over. Isaiah Green was added to the off-season roster at the immediate end of the 2012 regular season, and will be working as hard as everyone else to catch the coaches' eye. Last, but not least, Robert Golden cannot be excused from this conversation, despite being listed as a safety on the depth chart. His future is not set in stone.
The Steelers re-acquired William Gay in free-agency. He will begin the pre-season as the team's nickel option, but the team would definitely rather see its young talent achieve its potential, then to rely solely on a player they felt they could live without before. Of course, based on the performance exhibited at the end of last season, most of the guys on the off-season roster also belong in the same category.
Brown intrigued the Steelers to actually select him a round earlier than Allen in the same draft, and Victorian was impressive enough last pre-season to make the team give up on seventh-round pick Terrence Frederick; but both will need to improve exponentially to secure a future in this defense. No one is safe anymore. Technically, the winner of this battle could reach as high as the nickel package; but right now it's more about proving they belong, more than it's proving who's better.
In the end, special teams contributions may determine which players will round out the roster, but the Steelers need the players to determine who is ready to make the roster to uphold the standard.