Prior to last season, I wrote that Keenan Lewis would add a new dynamic to the Steelers defense, even though he wasn\’t a full-time starter, Lewis did do that playing the outside position in the team\’s nickel defense. What I didn\’t realize at the time was that Lewis was only the first step in a certain revamping of the Steelers\’ style.
Over the past few years, the Pittsburgh Steelers\’ defense has been led by shorter more agile cornerbacks to fit their zone scheme. With players like Deshea Townsend, Bryant McFadden and William Gay on the roster, the rangy Ike Taylor was the exception rather than the rule for Steelers\’ cornerbacks.
Townsend, McFadden and Gay were all pivotal parts of Super Bowl teams, but limited in man coverage as the Steelers\’ 3-4 defense didn\’t ask them to play too much man coverage. The biggest difference between cornerbacks of the Steelers\’ recent past and the current crop of corners is their length.
Ike Taylor is the only constant between the Steelers\’ old cornerbacks and the current crop. Taylor stands at 6-2 and easily towered above Townsend, 5-10, Gay 5-10 and McFadden 6-0. The tallest corner out of the old guard is the same height as the shortest corners on the Steelers\’ current roster.
Lewis and Curtis Brown are listed at 6-0 while Cortez Allen is 6-1.
Those may seem like minimal discrepancies but can make a massive difference on the football field. This is something that stood out as quickly as last season when the Patriots arrived in Pittsburgh. During that game, Allen showed off his size and physicality to essentially shut down Rob Gronkowski. However, that was not the only notable performance that day.
That day Dick LeBeau, whether it be through injuries or choice, drastically altered the style of his defense to pressure the Patriots with his rangy cornerbacks and give his pass rushers a chance to disrupt the timing of the Patriots offense.
In the past, Tom Brady had come to Pittsburgh and easily picked apart the Steelers\’ zone coverage as the team\’s corners and safeties were slower mentally to react to Brady\’s quick decision making and precise throws. This year, the Steelers corners were able to focus on their assignments with greater ease because they were less complex.
The Steelers now have the personnel to play the “pick\’em” defense. The idea that defenders can just point to an attacker and say “He\’s mine.” With four cornerbacks capable of competing with receivers\’ size and speed, the Steelers will be better suited to play more man coverage and even shift their defenders into press coverage.
The ability to play press coverage on defense is as valuable as an established running game is to an offense. Press coverage, when done well, tightens throwing windows and disrupts the timing of routes. It takes longer for the ball to come out of the pocket giving rushers more opportunities to get into the backfield.
Most importantly however, it allows intelligent safeties to take advantage of less complex defensive schemes. It is no coincidence that Ryan Clark had one of his better years last year in the Black and Gold uniform. Clark is a very intelligent footballer and with better coverage ahead of him, and complex zone assignments, Clark was able to get to his first Pro Bowl.
The Steelers are fortunate—or rather owe an awful lot to the outstanding drafting of GM Kevin Colbert—that the new crop of corners have a lot of scheme versatility. They may not excel in zone coverage the way Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden did, but they are certainly better there than the old cornerbacks were at man coverage.
Watching the development of Brown and Allen in particular, as well as Lewis, next year is going to be a fascinating venture.