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 pessimistic side of the coin.
Question: What will the cornerback depth chart look like heading into the next season?
After two consecutive seasons of giving up the fewest yards through the air in the league, the Steelers’ secondary took a mighty tumble in that regard, plummeting to ninth. But more concerning than the yardage is the differential.
In 2012, the Steelers allowed a league-best 185.2 yards per game through the air. In 2011, they allowed just 171.9 yards per game—that total bests the number put up by the Seattle Seahawks defense this past season. Yet the Steelers gave up significantly more in 2013, surrendering 221.6 yards per game through the air, their worst since 1991.
Could the Steelers really intend to trot out the same group of cornerbacks from last season that produced one of the most porous pass defenses in the last two decades of the team’s history? It certainly appears that way.
While indications are strong that Ike Taylor will be asked to take a pay cut, it seems equally probable that he, like Casey Hampton before him, will be agreeable to the decrease in pay. Cortez Allen and William Gay, in all likelihood, are expected to continue to round out the top of the depth chart.
Don’t expect the Steelers to add any help in free agency, as, if anything, they appear more interested in using that avenue to replace Ryan Clark on the back end rather than bringing in somebody to cover. And even if they use their first pick in the draft on a cornerback, the odds are that he will have to work to even earn time in the nickel as a rookie.
So who, then, is behind Taylor, Allen, and Gay? Well, last season suggests that it would be Shamarko Thomas if he’s not starting at safety, and after him, Antwon Blake. That is how far former third-round draft pick Curtis Brown has fallen, who may even be considered lucky if he earns a roster spot this year. Devin Smith and Isaiah Green at this point are just bodies, hardly to be considered upgrades of any kind.
To put it quite simply, the depth of talent at the cornerback position from top to bottom is fairly mediocre, but it really takes a plunge at the bottom end. The Steelers have experienced misery as recently as 2012 simply because they couldn’t get healthy bodies to cover wide receivers.
They were fortunate not to have multiple players injured and out simultaneously last year, with only Allen of the top three missing two games, but it might be pushing it to bank on similar luck with health in 2014.
Though it’s too early to say with certainty, the Steelers seem content to only address the cornerback position through the draft this offseason, which seemingly guarantees that nobody but Taylor, Allen, or Gay will start a game at the position this season, barring injuries. I’m not confident any longer that that is a comfortable situation. I believe in this case that the reality skews toward the pessimistic view.