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Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Draft Preview: A Look at the Cornerbacks

In case you haven't noticed, gone are the days of the Steel Curtain and Blitzburgh.

Welcome to the era of the Maginot Line in Pittsburgh.

Indeed, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense was a statistical nightmare in 2014 and the worst under departed defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. It ranked No. 18 in total defense in the NFL, giving up 353.4 yards per game. 

The secondary contributed heavily to the decline. It gave up 253.1 pass yards per game. Opponents' quarterbacks had a 98.3 rating against Pittsburgh.

And it surrendered big plays, something normally unheard of from a LeBeau-led defense. It gave up 15 plays greater than 40 yards, second worst in the NFL. Compare that to a total of 11 such plays from 2011 to 2013, and you can see why LeBeau is no longer in Pittsburgh.

Now, it's Keith Butler's problem. He, along with secondary coach Carnell Lake, are charged with getting the defensive backfield in order. Unfortunately, they don't have much to work with.

The cornerbacks were the weakest of the weak last season. Currently, there are two experienced corners under contract for next year, William Gay and Cortez Allen. That's it. Gay is the most consistent of the two, which isn't saying much. Pro Football Focus rated Allen No. 103 out of a possible 108 cornerbacks. Unfortunately, since he wasn't last, he has room to get worse.

But it's not supposed to be that way. Allen was the one given the big contract last offseason, yet spent most of the time injured or on the bench. That has to change.

Ike Taylor won't be back. The 34-year-old cornerback played much older and is definitely past his prime. Antwon Blake and Brice McCain are decent backups, but aren't starters in a respectable secondary, and will be regarded as such in free agency.

However, the Steelers aren't going to use free agency to patch the holes. No Darrelle Revis signing here, even if he is a hometown guy. It's not their style. Aside from changing the defensive scheme to a 3-1-7 in hopes of flooding the secondary with enough bodies to at least get in the way of a pass or two, they must improve through the upcoming NFL draft.

Fortunately, the draft is deep in corners. And they'll need to tap into that depth.

If the Steelers choose not to go with a cornerback in the first round, then rounds two through four provide some opportunities for value picks. Anything later than that, though, and the quality declines, The Steelers have the mediocrity market already covered.

Size is key theme in the draft for this group. No 5-foot-9 players need apply. It has to be this way. The elite receivers in the NFL are getting taller and that's not going to change any time soon. On the contrary, the top receivers in this year's draft are all 6-feet or taller. The Steelers don't need any more mighty midgets like Blake or McCain. They need height.

Michigan State's Trae Waynes fits the bill. Realistically, he won't be around by time the Steelers pick at No. 22, but stranger things have happened. At 6-foot-1, 183 pounds, Waynes has the height, but may be a little light. However, he is a physical player.

If Waynes isn't around, the Steelers could wait until the second and third round to grab a quality corner or two. Kevin Johnson from Wake Forest and Jalen Collins from LSU are possibilities. Both are tall, with Johnson at 6-foot-1 and Collins at 6-foot-2. However, Collins has more beef to his frame at 200 pounds, while Johnson is a wiry 175 pounds. 

Another solid corner is Alex Carter from Stanford. Standing 6-feet and weighing 200 pounds, Carter definitely has the size to match up well with bigger receivers. He plays better in zone than man, which is perfect for the Steelers if Butler continues to use a similar scheme to LeBeau's. Being a Stanford guy, Carter has the smarts to pick up the complexities of the defense.

Regardless of who the Steelers ultimately draft, however, the fact is that they must invest a couple of picks in corners or 2015 will look a lot like 2014.

Or, to rip off The Who: Meet the new defense, same as the old defense. And, trust me, the opponents won't be fooled again.


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