Sports Magazine

Steelreign : Steelers Young Playmakers In Secondary Just Need Experience

By Kipper @pghsportsforum
Over the past several seasons, the Steelers’ secondary has been lacking the ability to create turnovers, mainly in the form of interceptions. On several painful occasions, a Steeler defensive back’s failure to hang on to the ball has resulted in a second chance for a team to come back and put the game away in the final minutes. A game that stands out is a 2009 home loss to the Raiders where CB Joe Burnett dropped an errant throw from Raiders QB Bruce Gradkowski. If Burnett intercepts that ball near midfield, he puts the game away for the Steelers. Instead, Gradkowski comes back to hit Larry Murphy with the game winning touchdown pass with less than a minute left in the game. The Steelers finished 9-7 that season, one win shy of making the playoffs.
While it may not be fair or accurate to say that Joe Burnett’s failure to intercept a pass, that hit him between the numbers, cost the Steelers a postseason berth, it underscores the importance that a defensive back should have solid ball skills. Mel Blount, Rod Woodson, Carnell Lake and Troy Polamalu all had solid ball skills and all had direct impacts on the outcome of games with timely interceptions. Who could ever forget Troy’s touchdown return when he picked off a Joe Flacco pass in the 2008 AFC Championship Game, that sealed the Steelers trip to Super Bowl XLIII?
In the 2015 NFL Draft, the Steelers selected three DB’s who possess the type of hands the secondary has been lacking. Senquez Golson, Doran Grant and Gerod Holliman had 29 interceptions between them during their final collegiate seasons. Among these three, Grant had the “ordinary” season with only 5 interceptions, compared with Golson’s 10 and Holliman’s 14, which tied an FBS record. The Steelers defense in 2014 totaled only 14 interceptions. While the biggest knock on Golson and Grant is their size, Holliman’s biggest issues coming out of Louisville were his ability to tackle and willingness to hit. That description seems to fit another safety who also has a nose for the football, future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed. Holliman, who says he is capable of being physical, has never been required to be that type of player within the system he came from. Is it a fluke that these guys had so many interceptions last season? Unless the quarterbacks that they faced last year were just horribly bad, it’s a very good indication that they truly have good ball instincts.
With Willie Gay, the Steelers seem to have somewhat of a late bloomer. His career path is similar to that of former Steeler Deshae Townsend, who came on after being much maligned early in his career. Last season “Big Play” Willie Gay returned three interceptions for touchdowns, which tied a Steelers single season record. He also made countless other plays in critical situations that helped the defense get off the field and end scoring threats. The most interesting of the returning players in the secondary is Cortez Allen. The Steelers were impressed enough by his early performance that they let a promising young cornerback, Keenan Lewis, leave in free agency. They signed Allen to a new long term deal, only to watch him lose most of last season due to injuries and a loss of confidence.
Prior to last season, Allen displayed his own nose for the football with key interceptions and an ability to force fumbles. There is no reason to believe that Allen can’t be fixed. Blessed with above average talent and athletic ability, and privileged to be able to learn under the guidance of DB coach Carnell Lake, a bounce back year from Cortez Allen is much more than likely. The Steelers could really use his size and speed to help corral the bigger receivers throughout the AFC North and the rest of the league as well. His return to the starting lineup would also give the Steelers the luxury of being able to gradually work the rookies into the rotation and not having to rush them through a trial by fire.
Antwon Blake is another returning defensive back who provides solid depth. He is nothing if not reliable and hits with fumble-causing force. Blake was the player who made the hit on Cincinnati’s A.J. Green that sealed the AFC North title for the Steelers and their first playoff berth after back to back 8-8 seasons. Injuries to Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen allowed Blake to see more playing time than he otherwise might have and he acquitted himself adequately. B. W. Webb is a little used reserve, with some intrigue to him, who has a chance to see some playing time in sub-packages this season. He has the size and athletic ability that the Steelers like, all that’s left for him to do is to apply what he has learned on the field. Early indications are that throughout the offseason, he has raised expectations for himself heading into training camp.
For the first time since 2003, the Steelers will head to Latrobe without all-world safety Troy Polamalu. In his place, it is expected that third year man Shamarko Thomas will step up and fill the void. An extremely hard working player, the only thing holding back the development of Thomas has been a series of minor, nagging injuries. If he can stay healthy, Thomas will provide a much needed boost to the back half of the defense with his coverage skills and willingness to jump up in the box to provide a physical brand of run support. Mike Mitchell is entering his second year replacing Ryan Clark and is hoping for much more positive results. Overall it was a down year for him regardless of his improved play as the year progressed. While some people viewed it as an excuse, Carnell Lake recently revealed that Mitchell played most of last year with two partially torn groins. If he plays the 2015 season anything like he played in 2013, then his 2014 season will look more like a gritty team-first effort than a lame excuse.
Hopefully Will Allen and Gerod Holliman won’t have to provide any more than capable depth for the secondary this year. If they are pressed into service, it means Mitchell and Thomas couldn’t stay healthy. Will Allen is dependable and heady, but starting for any length of time exposes his liabilities in coverage, and while Holliman just might end up being the steal of this year’s draft, having to throw him to the wolves early could end up with him having the same confidence issues that Cortez Allen is trying to work his way back from. If he is to get substantial playing time this season, it’s more preferable that it’s from him earning it than out of sheer need. If all goes as it’s hoped and planned for, the Steelers’ secondary could end up being the unit on defense that creates the most big plays. There are finally quite a few of those guys who have a nose for the ball, and with time to develop them and a little bit of experience, expect to see them help put the ball in the hands of Big Ben and company more often so they can work their magic.

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