Steelers Sunday / The secondary: A long, hard fall
February 15, 2014 11:57 PM
Matt Freed /Post-Gazette
William Gay was one of the few bright spots in 2013. He may have had the best season of his seven-year NFL career.
Matt Freed /Post-Gazette
Nothing drives that fact home more than this sobering statistic: In the past three seasons combined, the Steelers have 31 interceptions.
When you get to be 33, as Troy Polamalu will be in April, age becomes an issue every year.
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks created more turnovers than any other team in the NFL last season, and they were particularly adept at intercepting passes. In 19 games, 16 regular-season and three playoff contests, they had 32.
Once among the best in the league at creating turnovers, the Steelers are now the antithesis of the Seahawks. Nothing drives that fact home more than this sobering statistic: In the past three seasons combined, the Steelers have 31 interceptions.
If this were the only problem in the secondary, the Steelers might have been able to overcome it. But there were other issues at hand. In addition to lacking playmakers who could take the ball away, the Steelers compounded their defensive issues by surrendering an inordinate number of big plays last season.
This drove defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau batty because the basic principle behind his defensive scheme is to limit big plays. Under LeBeau, the Steelers have dared opponents to drive the length of the field against them. When teams scored against the Steelers, they had to earn it.
Beginning today and for the next seven Sundays, the Post-Gazette takes a position-by-position look at the Steelers.
Teams didn't have to work nearly as hard to score against the Steelers in 2013 and one of the more surprising things was who was exposing them for the big plays. It was one thing for New England's Tom Brady to dissect the Steelers to the tune of 55 points and 610 total yards, but some decidedly less-talented quarterbacks found ways to beat the Steelers, too. They included Jake Locker, Matt Cassell, Terrelle Pryor and Ryan Tannehill.
Some, like Pryor and Tannehill, did more damage running than passing, but there was a time when the Steelers devoured subpar quarterbacks no matter what their skill set. That no longer is the case.
Even in victory there were struggles. Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden of the Browns managed to combine for 312 passing yards in a game in Cleveland in November. Matthew Stafford of the Lions threw for 362 yards.
But the inability to take the ball away is the most glaring issue. The Steelers had 10 interceptions last season. They had 10 in 2012 and 11 in 2011, when they made the playoffs after going 12-4 during the regular season. The 2011 Steelers were masters at not allowing big plays, however.
The 2013 Steelers did neither, and it's one of the biggest reasons they failed to make the playoffs for the second year in a row.
Some of the inefficient play in the defensive backfield can be traced to last offseason when the Steelers failed to sign free agent cornerback Keenan Lewis, who left the team that drafted him for his hometown New Orleans Saints. Lewis was one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL last season. According to Pro Football Focus, he was targeted 68 times by opposing quarterbacks and allowed just 466 yards and three touchdowns. He intercepted four passes.
By contrast, the player the Steelers elected to keep over Lewis had one of the worst seasons of his distinguished career. Veteran Ike Taylor was targeted 113 times and gave up 71 receptions and 1,043 yards, the most by any cornerback in the NFL. Taylor allowed six touchdowns while in coverage and did not have an interception.
To demonstrate how much Taylor was targeted by opposing teams and how much success they had against him, consider this: he gave up 71 more yards than any other cornerback in the NFL and only two cornerbacks in the NFL were targeted more.
The Steelers have to make a decision on Taylor, who turns 34 in May. According to overthecap.com, he is an $11.9 million cap hit if he is on the roster next season, but the Steelers can save $7 million -- his 2014 salary -- by releasing him.
If the Steelers made a mistake in their decision to keep Taylor over Lewis, give them credit for re-signing William Gay, who might have had the best season of his seven-year career. Gay was a part-time starter and excelled covering slot receivers. He also was good in run support.
Cortez Allen had knee and ankle injuries that retarded his progress early in the season, and he lost his starting job for a time. But the Steelers are high on Allen.
One reason they are hopeful is his nose for the ball. He had two interceptions, including one for a touchdown against Green Bay. Still, Steelers cornerbacks combined for three interceptions, or one fewer than Lewis had with the Saints.
At safety, Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu remained formidable run-stoppers, but they were not as strong as previous years in coverage. Clark, 34, is a free agent and is not expected to re-sign. Polamalu, who will turn 33 in April, had a strong bounce-back season after an injury-riddled 2012 campaign.
Some of the big-play ability that defined Polamalu early in his career returned in spurts. He had two interceptions, including one for a touchdown, and he forced five fumbles.
Polamalu had some problems in pass coverage, especially against bigger receivers. And, because of other issues on defense, he was utilized more like a linebacker than a safety for much of last season in packages when the Steelers employed six defensive backs.
Polamalu, who is a $10.8 cap hit next season, is playing out the final year of his contract. The Steelers could save $8 million by releasing him, but that seems unlikely in the wake of team president Art Rooney II's comments after the season when he said it's his goal to have Polamalu retire as a Steeler.
The Steelers drafted Shamarko Thomas in the fourth round last season and figure to address the position again in the draft or free agency. Thomas served as Polamalu's backup last season. He played in some nickel and dime packages early in the season, but his playing time decreased later in the season because veteran Will Allen was playing so well.
Allen was added to the roster in early October after Dallas released him. Like Clark, he is a free agent in March.
Clark's backup was second-year undrafted free agent Robert Golden, who was primarily a special teams player.
Golden only played 51 defensive snaps, with one coming after September.
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