Training Camp Preview and Roster Projections: Defensive Backs

Because sooner or later, we’ll all be trying to predict the final 53…

Likely Roster Spots: 9-10

Projected Starters: SS Tory Polamalu, FS Ryan Clark, CB Ike Taylor, CB Bryant McFadden

Key Training Camp Battles: Keenan Lewis, Joe Burnett, Crezdon Butler and Anthony Madison fighting for final 2-3 CB spots on the roster; Ryan Mundy vs. Tuff Harris for No. 4 safety spot on roster

Projected for 53-Man Roster: (10) Polamalu, Clark, Taylor, McFadden, CB William Gay, S Will Allen, Lewis, Burnett, Butler, Mundy

Analysis: The 2009 season made one argument abundantly clear: Troy Polamalu is the most valuable Steeler. With a healthy Polamalu, the Steelers had one of the NFL’s all-time great defenses in 2008 en route to winning a record sixth Super Bowl title.

In contrast, when the big-play-making Polamalu was sidelined due to injuries, the end of the 2007 season saw the Steelers and now ex-Steeler Tyrone Carter literally get run over by the Jaguars in the playoffs, while the 2009 Pittsburgh season essentially ended after its once-proud defense yielded a trio of fourth-quarter TD passes to journeyman quarterback Bruce Gradkowski and an abysmal Oakland offense in a week 13 loss Heinz Field.

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is a mastermind, who often coaches a 10-man defense, letting Polamalu react on instincts. Polamalu is also stout in the box on run support, tremendous on the blitz, and able to cover most offensive players man-to-man in press coverage. Essentially, he is the most complete and versatile defensive player in the NFL.

The problem is that Polamalu is now injury-prone, and the 2010 Steelers are not a playoff-caliber team when Polamalu is sidelined. In addition, Polamalu is hesitant and not a difference-maker when he plays injured, as he did for much of the 2007 season.

Thus, it is this simple: Despite its increasing age, Pittsburgh should have one of the NFL’s better defenses so long as Polamalu is healthy. When he is sidelined, the Steelers can lose to any team in the NFL anywhere, and will be fighting for draft positioning if Polamalu’s absences are prolonged.

Some Steeler fans complained when the team resigned veteran free safety Ryan Clark to a 4-year, $17 million contact this offseason. Those fans were speaking illogical, because the cerebral and sure-tackling Clark serves as a perfect compliment to a healthy Polamalu and was a far superior option to any realistic replacement for 2010. Yes, he is mediocre when Polamalu is sidelined, but Clark can still lay the wood on opponents as shown by the video  Willis McGahee Gets Jacked Up:


Former Tampa Bay Buc Will Allen should improve the Steelers’ depth at safety, is a favorite to win a spot in the dime package as the No. 3 safety and is a standout on all special-teams units. He should be an upgrade over Carter as the No. 3 safety. Allen has made 26 career starts over six NFL seasons, but his weaknesses in pass coverage prevented him from ever winning and holding a stating job.

Ryan Mundy looked unimpressive and lost late last season upon receiving his first significant playing time. With such a deep safety draft, 10 picks, and having no talented young players at that position, it was surprising and disappointing that the Steelers did not draft a safety to likely beat out Mundy for the No. 4 spot and groom as an eventual starter.

Now, journeyman Tuff Harris (great name for a safety), who saw action in six games with the Titans in 2009, will likely fight Mundy for the final roster spot at safety. The Steelers will not keep six cornerbacks and just three safeties, because Deshea Townsend is no longer on the Steelrs’ roster.

The veteran Townsend, who had an excellent and under-rated career in Pittsburgh, could easily slide over to play free safety. Keenan Lewis has the size to play free safety, but right now is rightly focusing all his efforts on learning cornerback.

While Polamalu’s physical health is the most important factor to the Steelers’ defense in 2010, Ike Taylor’s psychological acumen may be No. 2.

Taylor, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound physical specimen who runs a legit sub-4.3 in the 40-yard-dash, is clearly the Steelers best cornerback and their only player at the position who could start for more than a small handful of teams in the NFL.

Although he has never been to the Pro Bowl due to likely leading all NFL cornerbacks in dropped potential interceptions over the last five seasons, Taylor played at an all-star level in 2005, 2007 and 2008.

But he was benched in 2006 due to a lack of focus and poor performance, and probably should have benched last season if the Steelers had any decent other options at cornerback. His lackadaisical play in a 13-6 loss at Cleveland was indicative of the Steelers’ 2009 season.

Restoring Taylor’s psyche, motivation and focus should be among head coach Mike Tomlin’s goals this season, and Tomlin excelled at doing just that after his arrival in 2007. The fact that Taylor is entering a contact year before his impending unrestricted free agency after 2010 should provide plenty of extra incentive as well.

Re-acquiring Bryant McFadden for a fifth-round pick may have been the Steelers’ best move this offseason. McFadden started in 2008 on the Steelers’ sixth Super Bowl championship team. After receiving little interest from the Steelers, he signed with Arizona as a free agent after the season. Turns out both the Steelers and McFadden needed each other, because neither was good without the other in 2009.

His time in Arizona showed McFadden is incapable of being an NFL starting cornerback in most defensive schemes, where his suspect speed can be exposed in man-coverage down the field. But he is a perfect fit for LeBeau’s scheme, which has the No. 2 CB predominately playing zone, not running deep with receivers often, and providing stout run support, where McFadden excels.

William Gay was excellent as a No. 3 corner, and nickel- and dime-package contributor in 2008. However, and comments from Steeler coaches and the team’s re-acquisition of McFadden shows, Gay was one of the poorer starting cornerbacks in the NFL last season and not nearly as strong in run support as his predecessor.

Hopefully, a return to the No. 3 cornerback spot will result in solid play from Gay this fall. Like Taylor, Gay is also entering a contract year, although the fourth-year player may not become an unrestricted free agent unless a new CBA is reached.

Ideally, at least one of the Steelers’ three young cornerbacks will emerge to challenge Gay for playing time and position himself as a possible starter in 2011. 2009 third-round pick Keenan Lewis seems to have the best long-term potential of the trio.

However, the fact that Lewis could not make the dress roster for the Steelers’ disastrous secondary last year before being placed on injured reserve due to a back injury does not engender much optimism for the notion of his contributing in 2010.

Joe Burnett did end up seeing some playing time as a rookie in 2009 but was largely a disappointment. The Steelers make the playoffs if Burnett does not drop an easy, game-clinching interception in the Oakland debacle. Burnett came to Pittsburgh with the reputation an under-sized, but confident play-making cornerback who also excelled at returning punts.

Well, he literally fumbled away his chance at being the team’s punt returner last preseason and was not a playmaker at corner. However, the second-year Burnett still has a chance to develop into a solid contributor in dime and nickel packages, and may still get an opportunity to return punts for the Steelers this fall depending on which wide receivers dress for game days.

After his selection, sixth-round pick Crezdon Butler appeared destined for the practice squad. After all, Butler had an even lower draft grade by many experts and the Steelers could not keep six cornerbacks on its 53-man roster, right?

Tomlin has said he does not form strong opinions from OTAs, where players work out in shorts. But great insight can be gained into the skills of receivers and cornerbacks during these workouts, and Butler was arguably the most surprisingly impressive player in the recent OTAs, per Steelers beat reporter Jim Wexel of Steel City Sports and other Steeler insiders at practice.

Assuming Butler’s strong play continues in the fall, I project the Steelers to keep six cornerbacks on its roster, so not to risk losing any of its three young cornerbacks by trying to stow Butler on the practice squad, and because Taylor and Gay are entering contract years.

Of course, it would be almost ideal if the Steelers could keep one of these cornerbacks on IR this year, thus freeing up a roster spot for another position.

Veteran Anthony Madison appears a longshot to make the team, since his only value is essentially as a gunner on special teams and he lacks both the size and athleticism to be a serviceable cornerback in the NFL.

This is why Madison was cut before the 2009 season and the Steelers’ special teams play subsequently nosedived. But his presence did not improve the Steelers’ special teams after he re-joined the team in 2009, and free-agent signee receiver Arnaz Battle and one of the young cornerbacks are strong bets to assume the gunner roles this fall.

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