There were enough problems with the Steelers in last night’s 39-26 beating at the hands of the visiting Patriots to write a book longer than War and Peace.
But one that was not surprising was seeing future, first-ballot Hall of Famer Tom Brady repeatedly pick on the worst No. 2 and No. 3 combo at cornerback in the NFL in Bryant McFadden and William Gay.
At the start of the game, Brady actually came out and just found holes and seams in the Steelers’ zone defense, instead of targeting specific players on a regular basis. And the No. 1 reason why Pittsburgh’s much-hyped defense was abused all night was a complete lack of a pass rush, with LaMarr Woodley MIA.
By the second quarter, though, Pittsburgh had to start playing more man coverage and that is when Brady went to work on McFadden and especially Gay, who was beaten for three TD passes, all by unathletic tight ends.
While Ike Taylor has mostly been solid at No. 1 corner, last night’s disastrous performance by the Pittsburgh pass defense, which was common in the second half of the 2009 season, is why corner was the Steelers’ No. 1 need last offseason. It is also why it was idiotic to ignore the position through most of the first five rounds of the 2010 NFL Draft, while Pittsburgh focused on solidifying deep depth at linebacker.
McFadden gets too much love from Steeler fans. I liken this affinity to the case of Justin Hartwig, who was a below-average/poor NFL center but much better than predecessor Sean Mahan. Thus, fans were merely happy that Hartwig improved the position. Likewise, no one seemed to care when McFadden left for Arizona via free agency after the 2008 season.
But when Pittsburgh acquired him for virtually nothing during the draft (moving down from a 5th-round pick to one in the 6th round), he immediately represented an upgrade over Gay as No. 2 cornerback. That has proven true. However, the Steelers’ hope was that by re-assembling the 2008 defense, they could have the same results. But that hope was unfounded for an aging defense that become injury-prone and a step slower than their prime.
Simple fact is that when healthy, no team in the NFL would trade their No. 2 and No. 3 corners to the Steelers for the same players in return. McFadden received little interest in 2009 free agency despite being a young corner who had just started for a dominant defense that won a Super Bowl title. After signing a below-market, 2-year deal with Arizona, he was so awful in his one season in the desert that the Cardinals basically unloaded him for free despite his reasonable contract. Seemingly, the Steelers were the only team interested in his service.
That is because McFadden lacks the speed and hips to be a starting NFL cornerback in most schemes. He does fit Dick LeBeau’s scheme, but is continually exposed when the Steelers are unable to generate steady pressure on opposing quarterbacks or are forced to ask him to play man coverage, which proved disastrous in the loss to Baltimore or the near collapse against Cincinnati.
Far less coveted by other franchises is Gay, who simply lacks NFL athleticism. The Steelers offered Gay the lowest of three possible 1-year tenders this offseason, meaning that any team could have signed the Steelers’ starting cornerback as a restricted free agent by only agreeing to give up a 5th-round pick to Pittsburgh, assuming the Steelers did not match the deal. Still, no team was interested in Gay. Despite being a part-time nickleback, Gay has now been beaten for five TD passes this season.
Unfortunately, the Steelers’ options at this point are limited due to a lack of talent at the position. Keenan Lewis, a 3rd-round pick out of Oregon State in 2009, disappointed as a rookie and ended the season on injured reserve. However, he was impressive at times this preseason, where he flashed more top-end speed than McFadden.
Ideally, Gay would be the one to bench, since he has been much worse than McFadden this fall and has less talent. However, the problem is that both McFadden and Lewis are big, physical outside corners who lack the quickness to play the nickleback spot, which is often lined up against speedy slot receivers.
That role could be manned by Crezdon Butler by 2011 if not sooner. Butler, a 5th-round pick from Clemson, looks like the steal of the Steelers’ 2010 draft haul. He had an excellent preseason highlighted by an interception of Tim Tebow, and is both bigger and faster than Gay.
Butler, though, has mostly been inactive this season. He did dress last night to contribute on special teams because Will Allen was out with an injury. But Butler left the game with an injured quadriceps, so do not expect him to replace Gay any time soon.
These cornerbacks can be victimized often by an accurate, top-tier quarterback who gets quality protection. Fortunately, no other signal caller of Brady’s caliber is on the Steelers’ schedule for the rest of the 2010 regular season, with Baltimore’s Joe Flacco probably the best remaining quarterback the team will face.
Unfortunately, the AFC playoffs would include three potential opponents who could pick apart the Steelers’ defense in Brady, Peyton Manning and Phillip Rivers, who is likely going to be the NFL MVP this fall. These corners are a major reason why Pittsburgh was exposed as a Super Bowl pretender last night. But hey, no team in the NFL has a better second-team linebacker corps, which seemed to be the mis-guided focus of the front office during the off-season.