For all their problems through four games this season, from injuries to lack of production to their inability to stop the run, the Steelers' traditional Achilles' heel is growing stronger.
Cornerback has quietly developed into a competent position. It also will see the first definitive change in starters on the team this season.
Bryant McFadden, who had resumed his starting role at left cornerback after the Steelers got him back in a trade from Arizona last year, has apparently dropped from starter to No. 4 cornerback.
Although McFadden has practiced the past three weeks and his hamstring injury has healed, William Gay will make his fourth start at left cornerback Sunday. When they move to the dime defense, it will be Keenan Lewis again joining the secondary as the third cornerback and not McFadden.
Coach Mike Tomlin made it pretty clear Tuesday when asked if McFadden will return to his starting job.
"I like what's going on with some of the men," Tomlin answered.
The Steelers have the top pass defense in the NFL, as measured by their league-low 157.5 yards passing allowed per game. One reason they may be up there in pass defense is because they are way down there in run defense at No. 22.
Yet coordinator Dick LeBeau talks highly of the job Gay and Lewis have done on the other side of the phenomenal play of cornerback Ike Taylor, who has allowed about half a dozen pass completions over him, none significant.
"They've done real well, obviously, our pass numbers reflect they've done a good job," LeBeau said.
"We have to get more interceptions, we're not turning the ball over enough and that includes getting some fumbles and some picks."
The Steelers are in the unique position of having the top pass defense and being the only team in the NFL without an interception. They have one turnover, James Harrison's sack/fumble that led to Troy Polamalu's 16-yard touchdown return against the Colts.
Gay has been with the Steelers five seasons and he started for them in 2009 after McFadden fled to Arizona as a free agent. They reacquired McFadden in a trade and he won his job back last season.
The intrigue here is the improvement of Lewis. He seemed lost at times in his first two seasons after the Steelers drafted him in the third round in 2009. He has ideal size at 6 feet, 208 pounds, good speed and was a four-time Academic All-Pac 10 at Oregon State. He made a nice play on Texans wide receiver Jacoby Jones to deflect a deep pass away on third down in the fourth quarter Sunday to force a punt that gave the offense one last chance to tie it from midfield.
"The older you get, you have to grow at this position," Lewis said. "Rarely do you find too many college corners to come in and be starters right away. I just sat back and learned."
Said LeBeau: "We drafted him fairly early so we always had high hopes for him in terms of athleticism and the ability to see the ball and play the ball. He's coming on really well right now. I think it's all in front of him now."
There could be more changing of the guard coming Sunday, literally. Starting left guard Chris Kemoeatu did not practice again because of a chronic knee problem. Coordinator Bruce Arians said if he cannot play, Doug Legursky would start at left guard and Ramon Foster at right.
If Kemoeatu does play, Arians said the right guard would come down to Foster or Legursky, who missed the past game with a shoulder injury.
There's also the chance that Max Starks, signed Tuesday, could replace Jonathan Scott as the starting left tackle, Arians said.
The only injured player who returned to practice was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and he went through a full practice.
If both Rashard Mendenhall (hamstring) and Mewelde Moore (ankle) cannot play Sunday because of their injuries, the Steelers would have to sign rookie John Clay from their practice squad as the No. 3 back behind Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer. And that would mean having to release someone to make room for Clay on the 53-man roster.
It won't be difficult, however. As they have done in the past, the Steelers can release a player Saturday and re-sign him to their 53-man roster Monday. If Moore, for example, isn't going to play because of his injury, he could be the one they release. Clay then suits up for a game, Moore loses no money because he collects a paycheck for having been on the roster by Wednesday. And, on Monday, the Steelers could re-sign Moore and release Clay and sign him back to the practice squad.
The circumstances will change in two weeks when, after the sixth week of the NFL season, all released players must pass through waivers. So, in this example with Moore, the other 31 teams would have to pass on his waivers before he became a free agent and be eligible to re-sign with the Steelers.
• Center Maurkice Pouncey was fined $7,500 for his late hit in Sunday's game that resulted in a personal foul penalty.
• Ziggy Hood said he will start at left defensive end Sunday for Aaron Smith. Hood has started the past two games at right defensive end in place of injured Brett Keisel, who has returned to practice this week and will start Sunday.
First Published October 7, 2011 4:00 AM