2013 Steelers position preview: Cornerbacks

Justin K. Aller

Ike Taylor finally has a legitimate challenger to his top cornerback title on the Steelers. Third-year player Cortez Allen is one of the highly anticipated first-year starters in recent memory. The two together should make another formidable cornerback combination in Pittsburgh.

There's a list longer than Ike Taylor's legs with names of cornerbacks who started across from him in his underrated 10-year NFL career.

Willie Williams, Deshea Townsend, Bryant McFadden, William Gay, Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Josh Victorian are but a few.

Taylor has outlasted most of them. Now, he's going to be pushed by one of them as competition for the unofficial Best Cornerback on the Steelers award that Taylor has held a stranglehold on throughout the last seven seasons.

Allen, the third-year dynamo from The Citadel, steps in for the departed Lewis. Even when Lewis took the place of Gay (who has since returned to Pittsburgh and is expected to be the team's nickel back in 2013), he didn't generate the kind of excitement the athletic and improving Allen.

Even Taylor, who was converted from running back to cornerback his senior season at Louisiana-Lafayette, pales in comparison from a hyped potential perspective to that of Allen.

Both are former fourth round picks taken from smaller school. Both were seen as developmental projects with high ceilings of ability. Both will be starting in their third seasons in the league.

But Taylor did not do what Allen has done as a defensive back to this point in his career. Taylor was mostly used on special teams his rookie and second year seasons. Allen played an integral part of the Steelers' strategy against the high-powered Patriots offense in 2011, matching up in man against mammoth tight end Rob Gronkowski as well as the shifty Wes Welker. The Steelers held the Patriots to one of their least effective offensive performances of the year, securing a 25-17 victory.

Last year, as the team's nickel back, Allen failed to cause a turnover through 13 games, missing the Steelers' Week 15 loss at Dallas. He replaced Taylor in the starting lineup in Week 16 against Cincinnati, and had two interceptions and forced a fumble. In Week 17, he forced two more fumbles, both of which were recovered by the Steelers.

Allen, in just two quarters as a starter on the outside, had more interceptions than any other Steelers cornerback. A dubious distinction for the team, considering the Steelers cornerbacks failed to intercept a pass in 2012, but good for him.

The idea of carrying that momentum into the 2013 season makes Allen one of the most highly anticipated cornerbacks the franchise has seen since Rod Woodson in 1990.

Taylor's injury (a broken leg suffered in a Week 13 win over Baltimore) forced him to miss his first game since the 2007 season, but, upon a full recovery, he and Allen make arguably the strongest pair of starting cornerbacks the Steelers have had in years.

While Allen carried his turnover machine reputation into the offseason, Taylor is tragically known for the opposite throughout his career. Common lore has Taylor as among the NFL's career leaders in interceptions if he never dropped on that hit his hands. Instead, the dry, plastic-ish slap of the ball off his gloves resonates as well with him as does his constant chatter or his hand-waving gesture ("face me").

That sound has been the unfortunate battle cry of a Steelers secondary that's struggled tremendously to cause turnovers, the cornerbacks in particular. Lewis only had one interception in his career (in 2011), and still managed to parlay his success in a $26 million deal with New Orleans.

William Gay, who started opposite Taylor in 2011, has five career interceptions, which makes him among the active leaders on the Steelers. Two of those picks came last season, when he was in Arizona.

Gay was released this offseason, and the Steelers quickly swooped in to sign him, giving them solid, if not strong, depth at cornerback, something they did not have last year.

Down the stretch, Taylor, Lewis and Allen all missed games, thrusting an overwhelmed Curtis Brown onto the field against San Diego. He was targeted, attacked and utterly destroyed by Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers on third downs, and despite Rivers only throwing for 200 yards (the most the Steelers would give up in their previous seven games), the Chargers crushed the Steelers in a game a lot less close than the 34-24 score indicates.

Victorian replaced Brown in Week 15 against Dallas, having to deal with dominant passing attack led by WR Dez Bryant. Again, the Steelers' corners were overmatched, and ultimately, defeated, dealing a near-fatal blow to their playoff hopes.

Despite Allen's Player of the Week worthy performance in Week 16, the Steelers succumbed to their lack of depth, and their offense couldn't generate anything.

Victorian and Brown will vie for the fourth CB spot behind Gay, and the additions of Terry Hawthorne via a fifth round pick and Isiah Green via free agency will be intriguing as future prospects. The speed of Green is particularly as well as 2012 free agent signee DeMarcus Van Dyke are tantalizing as both projects and special teams contributors.

While the Steelers haven't spent higher than a third round pick on a cornerback (Brown in 2010), they've established depth through the middle rounds of the draft as well as free agency.

The level this group should be at in 2013 will likely exceed those of the past. And if their turnover numbers do as well, the Steelers could ride the strength of their cornerbacks back into the playoffs.

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