The Optimist’s Take – Cornerback Depth

For a team facing so much adversity in the past season and heading into the next with a litany of questions to address, it’s natural to consider the issues and how they can either go right or wrong, as well as how they will affect  the broader dynamics and future success of the team, both heading into this season and into the future.

Though not statistically true, it is technically true that every team enters the offseason with the potential to finish the year as the league champion or as the first team on the clock in the next draft.

Some teams have a wider realistic range than others, and I think the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of those teams. Think of them as Schrödinger’s franchise; in February, they are both future champions and future owners of the top draft pick.

In order to gain a better feel for not only the issues facing the team this year, but how those issues might play out, it’s useful to take the devil’s advocate approach. This is the optimistic side of the coin.

Question: What will the cornerback depth chart look like heading into the next season?

It’s already been established by now that the Steelers intend to ask Ike Taylor to take a pay cut. According to Jim Wexell, the team expects Taylor to be a part of the secondary in 2014, barring what would admittedly be a surprising refusal to take less money, given his expressed intention to not play anywhere but Pittsburgh.

Taylor may not be the true number one, shutdown corner any more, but I believe that if they reel in the responsibilities that they place on his shoulder from a down-to-down basis, as they began to do toward the end of the 2013 season, he should be able to rebound, at least to a degree, from a very poor year.

In truth, much of the problem in the secondary last year came from the back end, wherein the safety tandem of Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu was uncharacteristically undisciplined, which contributed heavily to some of the bigger passing plays given up this year, including some of Taylor’s plays.

Tighter play on the back end would go a long way toward making the cornerbacks’ jobs easier, and that’s why the Steelers appear to be active in the free agency market in trying to replace Clark, having already brought in former Detroit Lions safety Louis Delmas for a visit that was evidently a bit more than just kicking the tires.

Taylor could certainly use more of a sure thing on the back end, but so too could Cortez Allen, who I presume will be resuming his starting spot that he lost for most of last season until he regained it toward the end of the year.

The emergence of Allen as a sub-package player is what coaxed the Steelers in allowing Keenan Lewis to walk in free agency without even making an offer, but his first year in the starting lineup could be accurately described as disappointing.

In fairness, he spent a good portion of the first half of the season limited by injuries, beginning in training camp, during which he had a procedure done on his knee that kept him out of a lot of practice time. That certainly set his development back, which was only exacerbated by an ankle injury in the season opener.

When he finally returned, he looked rusty and overmatched by Greg Jennings against the Minnesota Vikings, which led to his benching, but he slowly improved throughout the year, and I expect him to look much more comfortable as a starter heading into this season.

William Gay played a larger role than anticipated when he was brought back to Pittsburgh, but he performed that role admirably, making up for some missed tackles with solid play against the run and a pick six. His only truly poor performance came against the New England Patriots. He should be an excellent sub-package player this season.

Behind the top three are a series of question marks, though question marks not without potential. Most notably, I believe, is Shamarko Thomas, who if not the starting safety should be instrumental this year as the dime back, given his ability to play tight man coverage, as long as he’s not presented with significant size mismatches.

While Curtis Brown could be described as a bust, he wouldn’t be the first player to be a late bloomer, even into his fourth season, which is when Lewis truly began to come into his own. Lewis had more success before then than has Brown, of course.

I’ve always believed that his issues are not physical, but mental and emotional. If he could get over his own mental hurdles, then he may finally be able to contribute to the defense; otherwise he’s well and truly on his last straw.

There remain Devin Smith and Isaiah Green waiting in the wings, but the team won’t wait on them too long. I suspect that cornerback will be targeted early in the draft, and that that player could be a sub-package contributor as a rookie, as Allen and Thomas were.

The cornerback position may not be so bad off after all, if some small changes are made. One must remember that similar units finished at the top of the league in terms of passing yards allowed two years running prior to last season. The main issue was the big plays allowed, which must be worked on this year.

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