Is It Time To Try Keenan Lewis And/Or Crezdon Butler at Cornerback?

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.

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  • Cols714

    Definitely. Teams are obviously designing plays to isolate Gay. The Bengals did it last week and the Patriots abused him this week.

    The larger question is what happened to Lamarr Woodley? He’s done next to nothing this year.

    • Rich

      I think a lot of it has to do with no Smith or Keisel. Them being gone hurts the abilities of the outside guys (and blitzing LBs) to do their job as well as they can.

      However, that still doesn’t excuse the performances (or lackthereof) we’ve been seeing from Woodley. He needs to do MUCH more in these final 7 games.

  • Dr Obvious

    I think this is a little bit of victimization from picking “guys that fit the system.” The DB’s are a perfect fit for the style of defense they usually run: keep everything in front of you and prevent the big plays. However, they don’t have the versatility to play man-to-man if they have to.

    • Ted

      The problem is that LeBeau is having to cover for these guys’ inability to cover that he is blitzing much less and running a far more basic zone defense. If we had two Ike Taylors, this defense would be absurdly good, although the nickleback would still be picked on. Still, much easier to cover up for one bad cover guy than two.

      Troy is doing nothing, because he is mostly sitting in deep zones. This is because we are too worried about these CBs being beat.

  • Jason Armes

    ITs hard to say Lewis or Butler would work. I mean we can see Gay is geting beat, but with in-experience in the other two, would we see even more of a let down then we already have?

    All I can remember was last year when Lewis was in. DIdnt he have an INT hit him in the chese in the raiders game?

    Oh well, maybe we can upgrade this year in the draft.

    I almost wonder if this isnt another side effect of missing starters on the d-line. As part of their job is to take up more then one o-lineman to free up our blizing line backers. And to me the d-line now seems to move really really slow.


    • Ted

      Good points, Jason, although that was Joe Burnett who dropped the int against the Raiders that ultimately kept the Steelers out of the postseason. He has since been released. Tomlin said Lewis would get some PT last year, but instead ended up on IR.

      Our d-line is getting 0 pressure or even advancement with the front three right now. Ziggy Hood has yet to impress me in a regular-season game and that is problematic.

      • Jason Armes

        Thanks for the correction. Some games you tend to want to block out from memory :/

    • Rich Eisen

      Sometimes you have too give these rookies a chance and that is not in the nature of the Steelers. Unless you are jaw dropping ahead of your time or a Wideout or Linebacker as a rookie you really have no chance of starting for the Steelers. We would much rather start a less talented 4 year Vet… then an extremely talented rookie who might make some mistakes here n there but he has to get his foot in the door at somepoint. Look at Devin McCourtney of the Patriots and Joe Hayden those guys played great this season. Not to mention Darrelle Revis his first 2 seasons. I think EVERYBODY is sleeping on Crezdon Butler this guy is amazing true talent Fierce the next big playmaker on that secondary do your homework this guy will be a problem for oppossing offenses in the future.Size, Strength, Speed, BALL SKILLS.. this guy has it all SHUT DOWN corner with our front 7 how could this kid not excell. William Gay and Anthony Madison, Keon lewis these guys are not impressive at all STARTING Crezdon will be the first big step for the steelers trust me.

  • Bigswa

    It’s time to try them. William Gay has been exposed as a marginal player. Gay has given up 4TDs in two games. Even if he still is the starter he should be forced to compete to keep his job. Tomlin should open up the competition.

  • Battintobatts

    It is just horrible that Gay continues to play. We SHOULD have someone better to put out there. 4tds in two games? Come on! William Gay looks helpless. They could get a player from the Clairton Bears who can cover better than Gay can. Ridiculous. Cut him TODAY. Cut Jeff Reed, too.

  • Bigswa

    With the proliferation of the spread offense, it’s really hard to get consistent pressure. Any defensive scheme that is employed must emphasize both pressure and coverage. The Steelers under Lebeau value Zone Corners not man to man types because of his use of Cover 2,3, and 4. I think the Steelers need to put a premium on guys who can do both, and if you can’t find guys who can do both error on the side of coverage and teach them to be physical. Also, I think they need a FS with more range especially when they are playing single high.

    • Bob Costas

      My feeling is that there just aren’t many defensive backs out there that can consistently cover players one-on-one with today’s rules. It makes more sense to invest in a the front seven because meeting at the quarterback seems like the only way to slow down the offenses anymore. And even that doesn’t always work because you might hit the quarterback too hard and get a fine/penalty/suspension.

  • Rich

    I think I’ve said this exact post about 25 times before and since April’s draft. I mean, you hit on every single point that I’ve been pounding home to my friends. Great stuff.

  • Lala

    I think McFadden is a servicable starting NFL CB. But Gay pretty much sucks. But I think the bigger problem is the total lack of pass rush and our soft zone system. You can have 3 Rod Woodsons, and if you give a QB like Brady that much time and that much space underneath a soft zone, it’s not going to end well for you.

    • Ted

      LaLa, I agree that the pass rush was the No. 1 problem last night, although Ike only yielded two receptions despite being in man, press-coverage most of the night. I’d take three Woodsons and win last night easily. LOL.

      You are being very generous with BMac. If he is serviceable, it is only with our scheme and when the front seven gets pressure. We needed to blitz more, including more exotic and zone-based blitzes, because the base 4 or 5 were getting no pressure. Still, LeBeau is obviously afraid to blitz with BMac and Gay. He did it one time down the stretch against the Ravens and BMac was beaten badly to the inside by a slow, recently-released veteran WR for the game-winning TD.

    • Rich

      There is no reason a CB should be beaten by a rookie TE for 3 TDs no matter what.

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    If Harrison, Woodley and Troy play well, our CBs look much better. Collectively, they did very little, and our coverage was exposed whether we were in zone or man. The way to beat Brady, Manning and Rivers is with pressure. In fact, we’ve beaten all three of them with this trio of CBs when we’ve gotten pressure.

    I don’t think that there are many 2010 r2 and later CBs who would be starting for the Steelers. Partially this is because most draft picks don’t start in year one.

    Also, since I think pressure is more important than who plays CB, I’m fine with investing draft picks in LB.

  • Mike L
    Some teams are playing with alot less. Get them some playing time who knows if there will be games next year.

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