A week from tomorrow and the Steelers report to 2010 training camp in Latrobe. We have been previewing each position this month leading up to camp and this preview is dedicated to the cornerback position. Make sure to read our previous previews by following the links below.
Training Camp Preview – Safeties |Training Camp Preview – Offensive Line | Training Camp Preview – Tight Ends | Training Camp Preview – Wide Receivers | Training Camp Preview – Running Backs | Training Camp Preview – Quarterbacks
Overview: The Steelers play at cornerback in 2009 was not one to be remembered. The loss of Bryant McFadden to free agency left William Gay to the chance to show he was ready to start. He wasn’t and the poor depth mixed with youth gave Steeler Nation ulcers all season long. The corners just never could force the big play or turnover when they needed to and mixed with the injury of strong safety Troy Polamalu, made for an unappetizing, vulnerable secondary. The Steelers traded back for McFadden and added one rookie corner via the draft. Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett head into their second seasons with high expectations.
Ike Taylor: Ike had an average 2009 season overall coming off of superb 2007 and 2008 years. It seemed as if his focus in games was not always there and the loss of strong safety Troy Polamalu meant Taylor didn’t always have the extra safety blanket behind him in zone coverage’s. Taylor heads into the final year of his contract in 2010 and there were no talks this pasty offseason in extending him. Taylor is playing this year in hopes of getting himself one final payday and it might not be with the Steelers. He is not known for his hands as evident by his career interception total, but can cover the likes of Chad Ochocinco and other big name receivers when he decides he wants to. The best thing about Face Me Ike in 2010 is the future pay day over his head. He will also be relied upon to help mentor the young corners like Keenan Lewis and Crezdon Butler to get them more in tune with zone coverage’s defensive calls. A poor start in 2010 could see Taylor overtaken as the right cornerback if he is not careful. Much relies on the progress of the young guys, especially Butler who will discuss shortly. For now though, there is no reason to think Ike will not have a great year in what might very well be his last in the black and gold.
Bryant McFadden: After not addressing the corner position in the first two days of the 2010 draft, it was a sigh of relief to hear the deal announced on day three that brought back McFadden from his one year stay in Arizona. The Steelers allowed him to walk via free agency following the 2008 Super Bowl season and he just didn’t gel well in the Cardinals defensive scheme. His return more than likely signals the failed experiment of William Gay at left cornerback as McFadden should win the spot easily. While McFadden is not known as a shut down cover guy, he is strong and can force receivers off their routes and disrupt their timing. He fits well in zone type coverage’s and can hit and tackle. Getting the old band back together in the secondary, should do wonders for McFadden and the left cornerback position. It is good to have him back in the fold.
William Gay: Gay got the chance to start at left corner in 2009 and played well below the line in the process. He often times played too far off of receivers and was picked on quite often, especially late in games. His tackling is below par as well and will also be remembered as the guy that Vikings running back Adrian Peterson ran smack over at Heinz Field. Gay was a restricted free agent this offseason and tendered a one year deal to return and resume his role as the nickel cornerback. This is the role he played prior to getting the starting job last year and he must prove quickly he can cover in that position. There are no guarantees with William going forward as Joe Burnett and Keenan Lewis could regulate him to a reserve role and special teams player. It would take a monstrous effort for Gay to start at nickel or even unseat McFadden throughout the year and it is pretty safe to assume that 2010 is it for Gay with the Steelers.
Joe Burnett: Burnett had a rough rookie season and could have single handedly won the game versus the Raiders had he not dropped a sure interception that hit him in the worst place, the hands. He did show signs late in the season of better understanding coverage’s in 2009, but for right now he seems to be the Steelers reserve nickel corner and special teams player. He might get a look at the punt return role, but likely will be something he just puts on his resume in an emergency situation. Burnett, like Gay, is under-sized and will battle to play in dime and nickel packages with Gay. He has progressed according to defensive backs coach, Ray Horton, and should improve this year.
Keenan Lewis: Lewis has made tremendous strides this offseason after a rookie year cut short by a back injury. He never could get his feet under him in 2009 and it delayed his progress. This year is a different story as Lewis is reportedly healthy and challenging for the spot behind McFadden at left corner. It should not be a tough spot to grab, but he has to show he understands the role and can be physical. There was talk he might get looks at free safety, but that talk has died down now, but it would not be surprising to see him get some practice looks at the position to show he can understand at play the position should emergency arise. Lewis is a big boy and will likely play a role on kick coverage’s as well. A great sophomore season would ease some concerns going forward for the Steelers future on the left side. Lewis seems up for the job and should easily make the roster.
Crezdon Butler: If you caught the NFL combine tape of Butler, it was not very impressive, but some players just do not look good in workouts, Butler seems to be that player. Thus far during the OTA sessions, he is turning heads and even getting some reps with the first team defense at right cornerback. If you want a true sleeper from the Steelers 2010 draft class, Butler is it. He has picked up the schemes and play book very fast, fits in very well in zone coverage’s and probably has the best hands in the secondary. The Steelers are hoping he is their shut down right corner of the future and can make Taylor not so much a priority to re-sign after this year. Butler is a rookie and will make rookie mistakes; he should make the roster, but at the very worst, be signed to the practice squad. He should be fun to watch at Latrobe, just not in drills.
David Pittman: Pittman, an ex-Raven is a journeyman cornerback trying to make the roster with his versatility. He has played both right and left corner spots as well as the nickel and has a huge traffic jam ahead of him to make the roster as the Steelers will likely keep 10 defensive backs with 4 of them being safeties. His best shot at making the roster will be to knock off Gay or Burnett for now and while not impossible, seems unlikely heading in to Latrobe. He could however play himself into the Steelers Rolodex, should a couple of key injuries take place. For now we consider Pittman a camp body.
Anthony Madison: I listed Madison here as well as with the safeties as I think he gets work at both corner and safety during camp. Everyone knows his biggest contribution is on special teams, but I think there is just no room on the 53 man roster for him.
Likely Training Camp Depth Chart:
RCB1 Ike Taylor RCB2 Crezdon Butler RCB3 Joe Burnett RCB4 David Pittman
LCB1 Bryant McFadden LCB2 William Gay LCB3 Keenan Lewis LB4 David Pittman
NCB1 William Gay NCB2 Joe Burnett NCB3 Crezdon Butler NCB4 David Pittman
Summation: The Steelers have begun the future shift to youth even with Taylor and McFadden starting at right and left corner respectively. Gay and Taylor are playing for their futures, while Burnett and Lewis must make huge strides in their second years. Butler could be the breath of fresh air in 2010, so watch him closely in camp. Overall the starting two corners and nickel are the same group that won the Super Bowl against the Cardinals. Although they have aged, the carrot is nicely positioned over their heads to get back to that level and make the secondary one that dares to be thrown on. If the defensive line can get good pressure and push this year, I have no worries about these corners. If they don’t get the pressure, any zone coverage unit can get picked apart with enough time. The corners must produce interceptions this year as it was a sorely missed stat line in 2009. You could even say non-existent.