Steelers' Townsend 'can still be a starter'

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In a season in which the secondary had problems preventing big plays and making even the simplest ones, the Steelers had to turn to one of their most reliable players to help ease the chaos.

After watching cornerback William Gay struggle and eventually lose confidence in his first full season as a starter, Deshea Townsend was thrust back into a role he hadn't performed in nearly two seasons -- starting opposite Ike Taylor.

Townsend, a 12-year veteran who had spent most of the past two seasons as a nickel back, started the final two games at left cornerback for Gay, primarily because opposing teams were picking on Gay with more than modest success. But even that switch didn't produce instant results or prevent more coverage breakdowns.

Townsend gave up a 30-yard touchdown to Ravens tight end Todd Heap in a Week 15 victory against Baltimore and got caught out of position on pass plays of 22 and 34 yards the following week in Miami, the latter for a touchdown.

But, he did come up with the first interception by a Steelers cornerback this season, even if it did take him 16 games to do so. And, in his opinion, he convinced the coaches he can still be a starter in the National Football league.

"I think I showed them I can still be a starter," he said.

The Steelers are not counting on Townsend, who will be 35 in September, being a starter next season. Nor are they sure he will even be around. But he has played a valuable role as a nickel back who lines up in the slot in passing situations and also lines up at safety in some of their specialty packages.

Still, Townsend is an unrestricted free agent, and the Steelers are preparing to move on if he chooses to sign with another team. When they drafted cornerback Joe Burnett in the fifth round last year, they proclaimed him a defensive playmaker who could be a valuable nickel back.

But the Steelers believe Townsend wants to return, and they will take him at a reduced rate, though there will be no urgency to re-sign him.

Depth is not an issue at cornerback -- at least not right now. The Steelers used two picks in last year's draft to help shore up the position when they took Keenan Lewis with one of their three third-rounds picks and Burnett with one of their two fifth-round picks.

But making plays is most certainly an issue, especially after the Steelers went 15 games without an interception by a cornerback this season. Curiously, it was Townsend who ended the drought with a second-quarter interception in the season finale in Miami. Taylor, who dropped what would have been a big interception in the loss in Kansas City, added another against the Dolphins.

Don't be surprised if those shortcomings prompt the Steelers to seek a cornerback in the early rounds of the draft.

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Gerry Dulac: . First Published January 27, 2010 5:00 AM


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