This Pittsburgh Steelers squad has had three major achilles heels the past two years: poor play by the offensive line, costly turnovers and a weak secondary. Last year all three reared their ugly head: the play of the line led to an inordinate number of sacks and turnovers, Big Ben was a turnover machine, and our secondary gave up 212 yards per game, good for only 20th best in 2006.
This year, the Steelers were able to shore up to a certain extent two of our three major problems: we turned the ball over far less frequently, and the play of the secondary improved dramatically. Although the pass defense's stats were padded by miserable outputs by Seattle, SF, and Miami in particular, yards per game allowed through the air fell all the way to 176.5 yards per game, third best in the NFL.
A big reason for the improvement was the resurrection of Ike Taylor's play on the outside. But a man with that type of contract better get his game back in gear after a dismal 2006 season. Instead, I'll attribute a big chunk of the success to the improved play of DeShea Townsend and Bryant McFadden.
DeShea, the 32-year old CB from Alabama, played all 16 games, recorded 54 tackles, and picked off 2 passes. His 16 passes defended were a career best. After last season, I was about ready to give up on Mr. Townsend. At age 32, I didn't see him getting much, if any, better. He was a pleasant surprise though in 2007, and at the very least, has earned a spot in our dime and nickel packages in '08.
I believe most of us felt Bryant McFadden deserved another year in LeBeau's system before passing major judgment on his future in Pittsburgh. He definitely struggled in 2006, but being that last year was just his 2nd in the league, there was legitimate reason to believe he could make significant strides in '07. I thought he did, even though he was on the field far less this year than last. It's safe to assume that being thrown in the mix last year when Taylor was benched helped McFadden for this year and for future years. His 50 yard INT return for a TD capped a fantastic game against San Francisco.
Here's the deal though guys. I don't think I'm alone when I say that the play of our cornerbacks concerns me in the future. These two guys just aren't in the upper half of the league in terms of sheer physical abilities. They're a bit undersized, only so-so in the running game, and they certainly don't cause opposing coordinators to be wary of their presence on the field. Fortunately Ike Taylor has returned to form, taking some of the pressure off DeShea in particular, and McFadden to a lesser extent, but it's fair to say that our CB play will not be one of our stronger suits in '08.
That said, it's still important to congratulate a job well done, and for the most part, these two played solid football in '07. Perhaps having Mike Tomlin around, a DBs coach earlier in his career, helped Townsend and McFadden. Perhaps they just worked harder this offseason. Who knos. And of course, it doesn't hurt when your offense wins the time of possesion battle nearly every game. Whatever the reason(s), I was pleasantly surprised by the play of our #2 and #3 cornerbacks this year, enough so to make DeShea and Bryant my #4 surprise of 2007.