As Pittsburgh Steelers training camp is set to begin, Behind the Steel Curtain takes a look at each position battle and how players at those positions are expected to perform.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers secondary could be the most athletic and talented that it's been in several years, as Cortez Allen settles into one cornerback spot opposite veteran Ike Taylor.
Allen has made some plays in limited playing time during his three NFL seasons, and he made eight starts last year. Allen tallied 13 pass breakups and two interceptions with one of those going back for a touchdown. He had two picks in 2012 as well, 10 pass breakups and three forced fumbles. So, Allen appears to be the playmaker that the club has needed at cornerback.
Taylor took a huge pay cut to remain with the Steelers likely for his final NFL season, but he still is expected to be a starter. Taylor tallied 12 pass breakups last season, but no interceptions and no forced fumbles. He has just 14 career interceptions and two forced fumbles, even though he has been a sure tackler over the years against pass-catchers. Taylor also isn't afraid to bite his mouthpiece and crash into a ballcarrier if necessary.
Veteran William Gay is the third cornerback, while Isaiah Green, Ross Ventrone, Devin Smith, Brice McCain, Antwon Blake and rookie Shaquille Richardson are the remaining corners on the camp roster. Gay has limitations in size, but he is a physical player who has stepped in and played well for the Steelers. He also isn't afraid to knock a receiver off the ball or come up to hit a running back.
A key for the Steelers will be to determine which players will compose the remainder of the cornerbacks. McCain, a sixth-year player, has the most experience. But his previous five seasons with the Houston Texans included spotty performances, including his worst season in 2013. McCain struggled in single coverage in the opener and continued to falter the rest of the way. And at 5-foot-9 and just 187 pounds, he's a slot corner and special teamer.
That's why the Steelers retained third-year player Blake, a special teams star who played 16 games for Jacksonville in 2012 and 14 games for the Steelers last season; second-year player Green, who played in three games last season; first-year player Smith and selected Richardson from Arizona in the fifth round during this year's NFL Draft.
Blake was a critical part of the Steelers special teams coverage units and should be among the top gunners in the league this fall. He also could develop into a serviceable backup at cornerback. That has yet to be determined, but the Steelers are high on all their young corners.
That includes Blake, Green, Smith and now Richardson. The difference could be their play on special teams, and that's where Blake has excelled and Green is emerging. If Smith and Richardson hope to make the final cut, they'll need to show something quickly at training camp and play well on special teams during the preseason.