Rooney on Steelers secondary: 'We've made some mistakes'
January 29, 2016 2:21 PM
Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Cortez Allen hauls in pass during an offseason training session in June 2015 on the South Side.
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As Steelers president, Art Rooney II expressed this week the same desire virtually every one of the team’s fans have come to realize — they need to improve their pass defense.
Some might say that would be to get more pressure on the quarterback, but the Steelers’ 48 sacks in 2015 were 15 more than the previous season and the most since 2010, when they also had 48 and went to a Super Bowl. They ranked third in the NFL in sacks last year.
No, clearly that improved pass defense must come in the secondary, and by the evidence that exists, there has to be some questions whether the Steelers are capable of improving that secondary.
The evidence against them:
• They have not had a Pro Bowl cornerback since Rod Woodson made it after the 1996 season. They have not drafted a Pro Bowl safety other than Troy Polamalu since Carnell Lake in 1989 (Free agent Ryan Clark made it once for the 2011 season).
• They drafted three cornerbacks last season and cut two, including their fourth-round pick, Doran Grant, before the season. Grant cleared waivers and ultimately made it back to their practice squad and then on the 53-man roster, although he did not play.
• In 2013, they traded their 2014 third-round pick to Cleveland in order to draft safety Shamarko Thomas in the fourth round. Thomas has played little on defense in three seasons.
• In the summer of 2014, they decided cornerback Cortez Allen would be the cornerstone of their secondary for years when they signed him to a five-year, $26 million contract. He was benched by that midseason and played only in the opener of 2015, a monumental failure who likely won't see the 2016 season in a Steelers uniform.
• Last summer, they traded a fifth-round pick to Philadelphia for fourth-year cornerback Brandon Boykin, who had six interceptions in 2013. Mike Tomlin said they had been talking to the Eagles about the trade since the spring. Then, they did not use Boykin at all except on special teams until the final third of the season in their nickel defenses. He will now become a free agent.
• They locked Antwon Blake up with a $1.5 million restricted free agent tender a year ago and then started him every game at cornerback in 2015. Pro Football Focus graded him the second-worst cornerback in the NFL last season at No. 117 (Boykin ranked 29th).
“It’s a combination of things,’’ Rooney said of the secondary missteps. “We’ve made some mistakes, there’s no denying that, regarding some of the evaluations. Having said that, we still have players in that group that we think can improve. That’s what we are looking forward to, having that group get better as the years go on. That’s what we are looking for this upcoming offseason.”
The Steelers will try to extend some contracts and sign some of their own free agents, as Rooney noted Thursday. Among those who can become free agents in March are tackle Kelvin Beachum, guard Ramon Foster and cornerback William Gay.
But while the salary cap is expected to rise by as much as $10 million for each NFL team, thus allowing them to spend more money, it also should drive contracts higher.
Take Beachum. His season ended after six games with a knee injury. But Beachum has been the Steelers starting left tackle for the past three seasons until his injury and his worth may be so much more than the Steelers are willing to pay.
Take a look at how much the Eagles just doled out to sign tackle Lane Johnson — a reported $63 million over six years with a $35.5 million guarantee.
Johnson had one year left on his 2013 rookie contract and the Eagles could have activated their 2017 option year to have him for two more years without signing him to a new deal.
Although Johnson was the fourth overall draft pick in 2013, he has not performed as well as Beachum. Johnson has been the Eagles starting right tackle, which is not as valuable as left tackle.
Last year, Pro Football Focus graded Johnson as the 25th best tackle in the league and Beachum, in his six games, 29th — again, with Beachum playing the more valuable position.
In 2014, when Beachum played a full 16-game season at left tackle, PFF ranked him as the fifth-best tackle in the NFL with a 23.4 overall grade that included a 19.3 grade in pass blocking. That same year, in 12 games played at right tackle, PFF graded Johnson as the 19th best tackle in the NFL with an overall 12.5 grade and just 5.9 as a pass blocker.
The going rate for left tackles is going up — even mediocre ones like Lane Johnson — and the idea of signing Kelvin Beachum at a bargain rate is probably no idea at all.
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