Steelers Cornerbacks Bringing A New Dynamic To The Table

By Cian Fahey

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.

  • SteelerDave

    I expect Lewis to stay in his current role as an outside nickle corner where he played quite well. Out of Brown and Allen my bet is for Allen to win the starting corner spot and do very good in man coverage. However do not count out Frederick he could develop into a very solid corner for us but is certainly not a cover corner, he is a pure zone corner only. Safety, Corner and LB all will need addressed early in next seasons draft.

  • TrueSteelerForLife

    Expectations for these guys are certainly high but I think that Curtis Brown will come on strong and so will Cortez. I know that Keenan Lewis and coach Lake are pretty close and that Lake was very instrumental in bringing Lewis out of his shell if you will, last year. So another year under his tutelage will hopefully turn Lewis into a stud. Hope they stay healthy, and then it’s on and popping.

  • Nathaniel Heath

    I agree with everything except the “McFadden excelled” part. I’ve never been impressed with his work.

  • Pete

    Brown is going to eventually win the starting spot opposite Taylor, if not this year, then next. He has explosive speed and closing ability. I may even venture to guess Brown may be the heir to Taylor when Taylor retires or moves on.

    Allen has come on quickly and he’ll have a spot in the secondary. Lewis has improved but his progress has been slow. This season will tell the tale where Lewis winds up in the secondary but I think Brown is a future star.

  • steelerfan4life

    I know the article gave a lot of credit to Colbert, but I am willing to bet that Carnell Lake had a big influence on the young defensive backs that is beginning to pay dividends.

  • Daveb1952

    I think the year Clark had was due more to the poor play of our DL and linebacking crew than anything else. When your Strong Safety is leading your team in tackles, it usually means your front 7 aren’t gettitng the job done. As for the corners, Allen is the real deal and should be starting across from Taylor come the start of the regular season. JMO.

  • steelman

    I think this will be Keenan Lewis’ breakout year. Not only does he win the job, but he also leads the team in INTs and PD and gets a possible PB nod over Ike.

    2013 stat prediction (these are based on the fact that he will have more opportunities)

    75 tackles
    2 FF
    5 INT
    19 PD.

  • Kingmagyar

    If the Steelers are playing more man to man this year then they should consider Robert Golden a UDFA they signed as a inside corner as he is excellent at man to man unlike draft pick Frederick.

  • I recall one game several years ago against San Diego, where the Charger receivers looked as if they were just too tall for Townsend.

  • SteelSpine

    Keenan Lewis is running out of years to have a breakout year. His immature penalties repeatedly gave him the hook, reminds me exactly of “Belton” Delton Hall back in the day who had that same ideal size but made dumb physical penalties. Lewis should have been ready to start last year, but couldnt be counted on. That’s why Stelers had to draft Cortez Allen & Curtis Brown, the idea is odds are one or the other of those 2 guys are bound to pan out to become a starting CB. Now Lewis has to look over his shoulder at Allen & Brown who will be competing with Lewis for a starting spot, plus it will determine what type of next contract Lewis gets next (here vs with some other team). It’s too close to call for which of those 3 will win out in the pecking order vs who becomes backups, but that’s what makes this upcoming preseason fun. Hopefully injuries to any of those 3 won’t decide who wins that competition.

  • steelman

    Last year, Keenan played well. Haven’t seen much out of the rookies to say they are ready just yet. I’m not buying into Brown and Allen until I see them in game situations, covering 1 and 2 receivers. I think he turned the corner last year. now he he’s earned the coaches trust, that’s why he played every game last year. And with more opportunities, he’ll get better and play very well.

  • John A Stewart


  • mghjr88

    Yeah, come on steelerfan4life, get with the program eh? Clearly Cian is WAY ahead of you