After the 1996 NFL season, Dick LeBeau left the Pittsburgh Steelers for the Cincinnati Bengals, gaining the title of Assistant Head Coach. In the 1997 NFL Draft the Steelers would draft Chad Scott in the first round. In 1998 they drafted Deshea Townsend in the fourth round. In 2002 the Steelers selected safety Chris Hope in the third round and in 2003 they picked Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor in the first and fourth rounds respectively.
Dick LeBeau returned to the Steelers in 2004. With a string of good DB picks behind them the Steelers with LeBeau drafted Ricardo Colclough, Bryant McFadden and Anthony Smith in the next three drafts, each with their second pick. The Steelers from 1997-2003 drafted far more defensive back talent than they did from 2004-2020.
Here’s a real quick breakdown of draft capitol invested and number of 4 year starters that came from those picks.
From 1997-2003 the Steelers missed on one defensive back draft pick in the first four rounds. From 2004-2020 they only really hit on one defensive back at all, William Gay in the fifth round in 2007.
To be fair, Sean Davis, Justin Layne and Cameron Sutton still can make it to 4 years starting, but it doesn’t seem likely, Cameron Sutton would have to be a starter in 2021 and then through his age 30 season. Justin Layne is likely going to be fighting for the third or fourth cornerback spot this year, but he’s still young. Sean Davis has three seasons as a starter, but there isn’t a lot of hope he’ll see year 4 either.
In Dick LeBeau’s first stint with the Steelers (1992-1996) they got two good defensive back picks, Darren Perry in the 8th round in 1992, and Willie Williams in the 6th round in 1993, when LeBeau was the defensive backs coach. The only cornerbacks to start more than three years in the NFL that were drafted while Dick LeBeau was a Steelers coach were two undersized, less athletic prospects taken in late rounds.
The Steelers kept drafting the same type of corners over and over though. Like Chad Scott and Ike Taylor. Big, athletic corners that have various degrees of rawness to them. The kind of players coaches take thinking that they can mold those physical tools into something special. It doesn’t work very often.
Instead the Steelers mostly end up starting a more polished veteran that didn’t have the same level of physical gifts as the guys they frequently draft. Guys like Joe Haden, who never was an elite athlete, but has had long-term success due to his skill and mastery of his craft. William Gay, Deshea Townsend, Willie Williams, all smaller players with more skill than physical tools.
Look at Artie Burns and Justin Layne. More big physical corners that haven’t gotten the nuance of the game. The Steelers are poised to start Cameron Sutton while those players still work to get their game polished. Look at James Pierre, who outplayed Layne, and in an incredibly small sample size, Cameron Sutton. He isn’t a top athlete, he’s an undrafted corner who showed fantastic understanding of the position and technique in the few snaps he got.
Is the problem failure to develop talent? It could be. It could be that the Steelers corners that succeed do so in spite of the coaching they receive and the developmental guys don’t because they need good coaching. This argument makes me think of the offensive line, where Marcus Gilbert, David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey and Ramon Foster were not a good offensive line until Mike Munchak came to Pittsburgh in 2014. By 2015 they were one of the best lines in the NFL.
Ray Horton was the defensive backs coach for the Steelers three Super Bowl appearances in the 2000’s, joining the team when Dick LeBeau returned and leaving after the 2010 Super Bowl loss. Carnell Lake followed him, and 7 years of futility ended with him leaving. Tom Bradley left this season after only 3 seasons as the defensive backs coach. Maybe Ray Horton was a great coach and Carnell Lake stunk. But then Anthony Smith and Ricardo Colclough didn’t develop into anything under Horton, Bryant McFadden was never much better than he was in his rookie season, and Keenan Lewis played his best football under Carnell Lake, after two disappointing seasons under Horton.
It’s hard to pin down which part of the two sided coin of drafting and development is responsible for the Steelers failures at cornerback.
But it could be a third option, one that affects the other two options even if it isn’t talked about a lot.
Dick LeBeau’s defense was a complex one that usually took a player several seasons to learn well enough to see meaningful play time. Taking big, raw athletes and asking them to develop their basic skills, learning to use their feet and hands correctly while also asking them to master a really complex defense isn’t exactly making the evaluation of talent or the coaching of that talent easy.
Mike Tomlin, coming from the Tony Dungy school of getting athletes on the field quickly, tried to get the defense simplified. But simplifying the defense brings in a different challenge, predictability. If you are going to be predictable and still win, you have to execute at a higher level than the opposition.
Execution is skill and technique. Taking big raw athletes and asking them to out-technique opponents is a different, but still tough challenge.
Maybe right now you are thinking that if complexity is bad for developmental corners, and simplicity is also bad for developmental corners, then what does work? The answer is a simple one, look at the developmental corners taken in each draft and look at how many end up being long term starters in the NFL. Not many make it, and the ones that do tend to be on teams with a defense that caters to their strengths.
Think of wide receivers. The Steelers have a great record drafting wide receivers. They also have a record of those receivers not really doing as well when they leave. The best stretch of wide receiver drafting success happens to coincide with Ben Roethlisberger playing quarterback. They also coincide with two offensive coordinators that used their skill sets well. Mike Wallace was a perfect fit in Bruce Arians offense that loved overloading a defenses’ deep zones. Stressing safeties with multiple attacks was a foundation of that offense, and Mike Wallace’s speed was a perfect fit, while his size wasn’t as important because he wasn’t being asked to win a 1v1 with deep help.
Look at Antonio Brown’s yards per target with Bruce Arians (8.3), Todd Haley (9.1), and post-Haley (7.7). Antonio Brown was a perfect fit for Todd Haley’s offense, and Todd Haley was the perfect offensive coordinator for Antonio Brown. Is that the only reason he succeeded? No. But being in a scheme that allows you to play to your strengths makes a lot of difference. Just ask Emmanuel Sanders, who because of Antonio Brown was forced into a role that didn’t fit him well in Pittsburgh, but in Denver got to play the role Antonio Brown played in Pittsburgh and thrived. Coaching didn’t matter as much as scheme fit.
So what does this mean for the Steelers? It means Teryl Austin could be the Steelers curse-breaker for drafting defensive backs.
Keith Butler went from coaching the outside linebackers to defensive coordinator in 2016. The Steelers have a commanding lead in sacks since Butler took over. Butler is the best pass rush coordinator in the NFL, and up there with the all-time best. He also isn’t good with the secondary. I don’t need to argue that, you all know it. He just wasn’t good at it.
The Steelers brought in Teryl Austin, who had done a great job with pass coverage mixing man and zone concepts and using players to their strengths, but couldn’t get a decent pass rush from the Bengals talented defensive line he coached. Teryl Austin took over in 2019 and started altering the defense to cater to the players strengths.
Think about Cameron Sutton this past season when he filled in for Steven Nelson and when he filled in for Joe Haden. When he was asked to play like Joe Haden, he was not good. When he was asked to play like Steven Nelson, he did really well. Maybe that’s why Joe Haden is still a Steeler and Steven Nelson isn’t. . .
The Steelers could take a defensive back in the draft now, and that player would likely face a very different situation than Ike Taylor or Artie Burns faced. A defense that would take their strengths and use them, while covering for their weaknesses. They would also hopefully draft a player whose strengths and weaknesses fit with what is already on the team. Maybe a player that isn’t drafted for their size, but for their skill. A player drafted not for what they could be if everything goes right, but a player that fits the defense with what they can bring right now, while the defensive scheme and talent around them covers for their weaknesses while they work on becoming a more complete player.
Keith Butler found ways to get value out of Bud Dupree when Bud Dupree wasn’t a complete player. T.J. Watt was raw coming out of college, but they made it work, and didn’t ask him to do what he wasn’t good at. This offseason Robert Spillane commented that the Steelers asked him to work on coverage and “hug” blitzing, his strengths, and to not worry as much about his weaknesses. The Steelers under Keith Butler have been using their players in the front seven really well, and under Teryl Austin have started using their defensive backs like that as well.
Maybe that’s the key to breaking the curse on the Steelers drafting cornerbacks.