For a team facing so much adversity in the past season and heading into the next with a litany of questions to address, it’s natural to consider the issues and how they can either go right or wrong, as well as how they will affect the broader dynamics and future success of the team, both heading into this season and into the future.
Though not statistically true, it is technically true that every team enters the offseason with the potential to finish the year as the league champion or as the first team on the clock in the next draft.
Some teams have a wider realistic range than others, and I think the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of those teams. Think of them as Schrödinger’s franchise; in February, they are both future champions and future owners of the top draft pick.
In order to gain a better feel for not only the issues facing the team this year, but how those issues might play out, it’s useful to take the devil’s advocate approach. This is the pessimistic side of the coin.
Question: Could the secondary hold up in 2014 if they were asked to withstand the loss of Ike Taylor?
Ike Taylor has been the Steelers’ best cornerback for the better part of a decade, with a few blips here and there. One of those blips came just last season, during which he had some bright spots, but ultimately ended up giving up over 1000 yards in coverage, surrendering six touchdowns without making up for any of it with a single turnover.
Taylor hasn’t really looked the same since injuring his leg in the middle of the 2012 season, which ended his year. He often looked at least a step slower this year and missed a number of tackles he was once accustomed to making.
Given his struggling performance, and the team’s significant cap concerns, the issue of Taylor’s contract has become paramount this offseason. While most expect that the team will approach the veteran about accepting a pay cut of approximately $3 million, that’s certainly by no means a guarantee.
As we saw last offseason, athletes are not always so accommodating when it comes to pitting their own interests against the team’s interests. James Harrison was approached about taking a pay cut, but he balked at the suggestion and left the organization with no alternative but to release him.
The front office may find themselves in the same position with Taylor this offseason. They certainly don’t want him playing under a $7 million base salary, and as much admiration as he may have for the ownership, people don’t like having money taken away. After all, Harrison liked it here, too. How else can you explain him being nearly brought to tears when asked about playing under Dick LeBeau?
So it’s certainly a very real possibility that the Steelers can find themselves without their top cornerback any more, even if he’s no longer the top cornerback that he once was. And given the depth at the position, this certainly isn’t a good thing.
For one thing, William Gay was not brought back here to be a starter, and while he performed quite admirably, including a pick six, he shouldn’t be counted upon to offer an encore performance. What’s more, Cortez Allen is susceptible to getting beat for the big play, and the Steelers were forced to take him out of the starting lineup because of his struggles.
More importantly, neither of them have ever been a top cornerback. Even when Taylor missed time in 2012, Keenan Lewis was the top cornerback. You don’t want to go into a season with two number two cornerbacks if you can avoid it. That’s what leads to historically bad passing defenses.
Curtis Brown has been nothing but a liability whenever he’s taken the field on defense. Isaiah Green and Antwon Blake are short, nondescript corners who can’t be counted upon for anything.
Bringing in a free agent? You’re not going to get a top corner for what the Steelers can afford, and even signing a moderate talent at the position would impinge upon what the team can do elsewhere—such as re-signing Jason Worilds or extending young players like Cameron Heyward or Allen.
Somewhat ironically, Taylor holds the cards here. The Steelers need him to play, but they also need him to be willing to take a pay cut. And he doesn’t have to oblige. From just about every standpoint, it doesn’t look like the team is equipped to do without Taylor this season.