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Position of Strength

When I sat down, in mid-April, to write out a column on what the Steelers needed to do in the then-upcoming 2011 NFL Draft, it was a no-brainer. This team needed help at cornerback, and it needed it bad.

The 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers established themselves as one of the best teams in the league, but often looked out of their element against elite quarterbacks.

In October, the pass defense was victimized by New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees. In November, New England’s Tom Brady took it further and embarrassed the 6-2 Steelers in a rout in front of their home crowd.

And when it mattered most, the NFL’s lone game in February, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers became a Super Bowl MVP at the expense of Pittsburgh’s finest.

At the time, it was easy to be skeptical of the secondary. While the starting safeties—Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu—were locked in, the team’s cornerback position was an issue. Ike Taylor and William Gay were Pittsburgh’s best corner and biggest whipping boy, respectively, but both were free agents. Bryant McFadden hadn’t looked the same since a one-year stint in Arizona.

In addition, there was little in the ways of help. There were rumblings that Keenan Lewis might not make it out of training camp, and the Steelers’ only other options were an unknown (Crezdon Butler) and a career special teamer (Anthony Madison).

The Steelers never did use that first round pick on a corner, opting for back-to-back cover-men in the third and fourth rounds – Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen.

They also replaced their secondary coach, though not by choice. Ray Horton Jr. left to become the defensive coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals. He was replaced by Carnell Lake, a former member of the Steelers whose coaching résumé consisted of one year coaching defensive backs at UCLA.

Even with Taylor, Gay, Brown, and Allen all in the fold; it looked as if the Steelers might be weighed down by their lackluster secondary.

Instead, the secondary flourished, and so did the Steelers.

After an initial stumble in the opener against Baltimore and the subsequent benching of former-starter Bryant McFadden, each of Pittsburgh’s cornerbacks photo by Chuck LeClairetook a leap forward.

Taylor, already a solid top-option, elevated his play to become one of the best cornerbacks in the league.

Keenan Lewis, once thought to be on his way out, gave the team an excellent third-option in the defensive backfield.

The biggest revelation was William Gay, a fifth-year player who looked like he was getting worse, not better last season. His step back the last two seasons was offset by his three steps forward this past offseason. Gay became the perfect complement to Taylor, as well as the team’s best weapon against slot receivers.

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau wasn’t surprised, and opined that Gay’s play in 2009-10 wasn’t nearly as bad as fans and media made it out to be.

“[Gay] has been a real steady corner for us all along,” LeBeau said. “The corner position can give the appearance of ‘up and down’ because there’s a lot of space out there and you’re very isolated. There’s no corner—no matter how good they are—that doesn’t go through some uneasy afternoons. I think, overall, the whole time that he’s been here, he’s been a significant contributor to us. He’s having a fine season.”

The team has also received contributions from the rookies – once a rare sight in Pittsburgh. Both Brown and Allen have made plays this season, with the latter doing his damage as the team’s dime-back. Safety Ryan Clark believes Allen’s development has been a total team effort.

“I think it’s just a good job by coach Lake and coach LeBeau of kinda getting [Allen] up to speed,” said Clark. “You also look at the players surrounding him: William Gay, who you can learn from and play in the slot; also Ike Taylor, a guy who has played nine years in the league as a corner. The guys playing with corner with him, they shared the information to try and help him speed the process up.”

“Also, you have to give the credit to Cortez for working hard to try and learn these things. Obviously, his god-given ability has allowed him to go out here and be a positive part of our defense.”

Don’t sleep on Curtis Brown, though. He was limited to special teams duty in 2011 before an injury ended his season, but LeBeau thinks he could be a player going forward.

“Curtis Brown has impressed us,” LeBeau said. “He’s done a great job. Most of his significant impact plays have been on special teams, but looking down the road, we think he’s got a real good future.”

While Clark insisted it would be disrespectful to attribute each player’s leap forward as anything but hard work and determination, the group could be benefitting from the presence of Lake, who earned a spot on the 1990’s All-Decade team with his play as a Steeler.

“I think Carnell has done a great job in his first year, especially with our young players that have come along and contributed significantly for us,” offered LeBeau. “Keenan Lewis has really come in to his own this year, and I attribute a lot of that to Carnell Lake’s coaching. He’s done a great job with those guys.”

While Horton and Lake both share some qualities—long careers, a multi-positional background, and previous experience with the Steelers—the difference between the two comes out in how each approached the secondary.

“I think Ray was more a micro-manager in the sense that he really wanted everything to be meticulously done in the way that he would want it go,” explained Clark.

“Coach Lake implements the plays and implements the playbooks, but he wants you to go out there and be free, make plays, and kind of be comfortable within the defense. He’s kind of given us a little bit more ownership of what takes place out there. We appreciate the respect that he gave us in that sense. We don’t want to let him down, so guys go out there and work hard. He gives you the leeway to go out there and make plays and play the defense the way you feel comfortable. You have to make it right.”

The result has been more accountability for an improved group of defensive backs, and more freedom for LeBeau to deploy different types of coverages. Against New photo by Chuck LeClaireEngland and Brady, Pittsburgh eschewed its zone concepts in favor of a man-to-man approach. The result? A rare and convincing victory over the rival Patriots.

What once looked like the team’s biggest liability has become its biggest strength. Pittsburgh’s pass defense, which has been in the top-five all season, has excelled despite losing its primary pass rushers – James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley – for chunks of the season. Despite facing less pressure, opposing quarterbacks have been unable to pass their way to victory, and that’s because of a stiffer secondary.

Clark insists that the secondary’s work isn’t done, though.

“We still have a lot to prove. When people talk about this defense, they don’t talk about the secondary. I think it’s the last thing mentioned out of anybody’s mouth. Most of the time, it’s the last reason mentioned that we’re winning games. For us, there’s still a lot to prove. There’s still a lot to do.”

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