AFC North Run On Cornerbacks Leaves Steelers Behind Division Trend

It’s not terribly surprising that a pair of cornerbacks went to the AFC North in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Somewhat more surprising would be the fact that neither of them ended up in Pennsylvania, but instead found their homes in Ohio.

The Cleveland Browns got things started by trading from the fourth pick to the ninth pick, and then trading up one more spot, to draft Justin Gilbert, the cornerback with perhaps the greatest speed and ball skills, to pair with Joe Haden, who in his own right has become one of the best cornerbacks in the league.

The other Ohio team, the Cincinnati Bengals, also added to a spoil of riches at cornerback by taking advantage of the somewhat surprising plunge of Darqueze Dennard, who slipped all the way to the 24th spot.

The Bengals already have Leon Hall, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Terence Newman at cornerback. Newman played very well last season, though we’ve yet to see the best from the young Kirkpatrick in his career. Adding Dennard to that mix could give the Bengals the best cornerback grouping in the division.

The Steelers? Probably not so much.

While they should have enough to get by this year—especially after using their first two picks on inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephen Tuitt to bolster the front seven—there’s a reason that cornerback was widely viewed as their biggest need, even if the Steelers didn’t see it that way.

For the ninth consecutive draft, Pittsburgh has eluded the cornerback position in the top two rounds of the draft. The last cornerback chosen in the second round by the team was Bryant McFadden in the 2005 draft.

The rest of the division? The Browns now have two top corners from the past four drafts. The Bengals have now taken four cornerbacks in the first round since 2006.

The Baltimore Ravens selected Jimmy Smith in the first round in 2011, while Lardarius Webb is a former third-round pick. They also used a first on a safety last year.

While it’s never been their modus operandi to use premium picks on the cornerback position—outside of a rare talent such as Rod Woodson, of course—that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an ironclad policy that need be strictly adhered to.

The Steelers used to prefer to wait on their defensive ends, yet have used three picks in the first two rounds at the position now since 2009. Yet all the while, the cornerback position seems to be increasing in importance.

That’s where the division is heading. The Browns and Bengals both figure to field a pair of first-round picks as their starting cornerbacks, while the Ravens will have a first and a third.

The Steelers will bring out Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen, their fourth-round projects, and accentuate them with William Gay and Shamarko Thomas, former fifth- and fourth-round picks, respectively.

Pittsburgh consistently maintains that their primary goal every season is to win the division first and foremost. The division is heading in a direction that puts a premium on cornerback investment.

The Steelers continue rely on mid-round talent to defend the division’s receivers. Is this hurting their ability to compete within the division, which they’ve failed to win for three straight seasons? Which philosophy will ultimately win out? Will Pittsburgh be forced to adapt to stay competitive in the division?

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • Brendan

    I’m a bit shocked by the negativity. In my opinion their philosophy has always worked, stop the run and get after the quarterback. And address the corner position with long, athletic guys later in the draft. I think you can blame last year’s struggles on their inability to stop the run and make offenses one dimensional, and their lack of pass rush. They addressed that in the first two rounds. I expect two corners to be taken today that fit that mold.

  • shawn

    I think u missed the boat on this article …. i really think they were targeting Gilbert, but once he was gone they didnt want to settle for Dennard or Fuller and wisely so picked their favourite player … once again same thing in 2nd round … 3rd round surprised me as i thought they could have had Desir and gone for Archer in 4th, but maybe they just aren’t high on Desir we shall see shortly …

    I do think they realise that they need a high draft pick at CB .. but at the same time i dont think they will reach just to fill a need which i was worried about and i commend them for …. hopefully we get a SOLID slot cover Corner in the next couple rounds and go for the lockdown/ playmaker CB to take over for IKE next year !

  • Jonathan

    Beef up the front 7 and our DBs won’t be exposed as much. And you say all our division rivals are using such high picks on CBs…well our WRs lit those CBs up last year.
    It’s a passing league, I get it. But if you can win the battle up front, have fast LBs running around creating havoc and decent zone coverage CBs on the field, your D can be successful. We are working on the first 2 and the CBs will come…much like Ike, Keenan and Cortez, who I haven’t given up on.


    I can only think that doing the opposite of what the Bungles and Brownies do is probably a good thing.

  • Paddy

    The holes at DL and LB were devastating. It’s not like they were loaded there. Speed and more speed needed

  • Nolrog

    The league has changed now. The rules for WRs and QBs have added a huge amount of offense. Seattle was able to combat this with a fantastic secondary. Letting the corner position weaken is going to be a big problem (and much worse if someone gets injured.)

  • Nolrog

    LB didn’t have a devastating hole.

  • steeltown

    That’s one thing that I went away with last night when resting my brain, the Steelers historically have done well with DB in the 4th Rd, Ike Taylor, Deshea Townsend come to mind and recently C.Allen and Shark Thomas

  • steeltown

    You’re forgetting the strong front that SEA puts on the field, they control the line of scrimmage first and foremost. Not to mention Chancellor and Sherman were both 5th Rd picks

  • Brendan

    Exactly. He’s also forgetting about a team in San Francisco who almost. Beat Seattle. Their strength is in their front seven, not corner.

  • Paddy

    Yes they did, defense led league in YPC after contact 6.5

  • Steve

    Foote was a devastating loss and so was Harrison. Rookies played both positions and they did ok, but made many mistakes that opposing teams exploited.


    I was shocked at first by their 1st and 3rd round picks (still am by the 3rd round) but then I realized that we have our #1 WR returning punts and really nobody returning kicks (based on last year’s performance).
    I’m alright with this thus far and think we have addressed some big needs. We haven’t run the ‘X’ blitz now for years where the 2 inside LBs blitz up the gut – with Shazier and Timmons we now have that option again. We either needed to bring back the Beard or draft a young, talented DE and I think Tuitt will be real valuable to us opposite Mc and Heyward.
    I WOULD feel more comfy if we got our CB in rd 4 though – there are several good CBs left, but if not in rd 4 then I think we have made a mistake by not taking one in rd 3.

  • Steelers58

    This writer sucks! Since when do you have to follow the trends in the nfl. Build your defense up front. With the first two picks we solidified the dl and lb position for yrs to come. Not too mention how athletic they are.
    Spare me with the gloom and doom

  • Steelers58

    Right on Brendan. Stop the run and dominate the LOS. It all starts up front

  • Brian Miller

    While I agree in principal with your points, to say that Seattle does not have a strong secondary is crazy. Do they have a great front 7, sure. Their skill has been the ability to find great talent to fit their scheme in the later rounds…something we must do the next few drafts. But Sherman just got paid as the top CB for a reason, and Chancellor is a hoss.

  • Brian Miller

    We still need to be able to find CBs in the later rounds, like Seattle has done in the past. I was as shocked as everyone else we took Archer in the 3rd. I have had him going to the Steelers in all my mocks, just in the 5th. I agree, the negativity is a little overboard now. Let’s see what they do the rest of the draft. Plus, after the June designation and we get the $ from Woodley’s cut, we might be able to sign another CB from another team. We do still need to draft a later round CB though, and he needs to stick.

  • Brian Miller

    True, and I see what you did there…well done.

  • Brian Miller

    They were big needs…I agree. I like all 3 picks so far. I just wish like a lot of other people we would have taken Breeland, Desir or Bryant and taken Archer in the 4th or 5th assuming he was available. I will trust Colbert and Co. for now, I hope they know what they are doing!

  • Brian Miller

    We all know that Pittsburgh doesn’t like to pay CBs…and they have had success in the later rounds with CBs. I have to assume by these picks they have been following their can we please get Haley to actually USE Archer this time unlike Rainey?

  • Johnny Loose

    You can safely give up on Keenan in Pittsburgh. I agree with what you said though.

  • Johnny Loose

    I think they probably would have grabbed Fuller in the 1st too, but he was gone as well. After that they took BPA

  • Steel PAul

    Um, see Seattle Seahawks?

    The Steelers philosophy has been to build the front seven with early rounds – I just heard this referred to as the ‘Planet Approach’ where you draft the largest and best players on the planet first – and take longer rangy corners later, just like the Seahawks started doing recently.

    No problem with this approach.

  • Douglas Andrews

    Good points I keep saying if we don’t have a pash rush it doesn’t matter if our starting CB’s are Rod Woodson and Deion Sanders we’ve gotta be able to put pressure on the QB period.

  • Douglas Andrews

    I was thinking along the lines of you as well. Fans keep wanting us to grab a CB with high draft picks but after the first 2-3 top CB’s theres a big drop off to 3-5 rounds.

  • cencalsteeler

    Here’s a scenario for all the fans worried about the Steelers not grabbing a cb early. What if…. what if the Steelers are targeting a 2014 free agent cb next year the same way they grabbed Mitchell to replace Clark? The sky is not falling The pieces to the puzzle just aren’t being put in the order a lot of fans expected.

  • Ike Evans

    SEATTLE COPIES US!!!!!….god…someone on this site do a comparision…the alignments that they run on that Defensive line…the scheme…how they switch from 3-4 to 4-3, the long athletic late round corners, the smaller linebackers who are fast and have some rush capabilities, one safety who freelances that will knock your head off, another safety who will just knock your head off…sound familliar?….They copied US…we dont have to copy them…we just have to do what we do BETTER then we have been doing it since the last superbowl

  • shawn

    insiders have already said they wouldnt have taken fuller ….

  • Scott

    But…with Rod Woodson and Deion Sanders the QB has to hold the ball longer giving the pass rush more time to get to the QB. How many times have we seen one of our front seven get to the QB a 1/2 second too late? I also can see the argument going both ways, but I feel a strong secondary creates a lot of opportunities for sacks and turnovers.

  • Douglas Andrews

    It’s a legitimate argument but I’ve always felt like with our Defensive Scheme you have to be able to stop the run and rush the passer. IMO the pass rush will strengthen the secondary. We don’t have pro bowlers at CB but we’ve been to the SB with some of those same players.

  • Douglas Andrews

    That was surprising to hear i thought Fuller was there pick. I’m good with our pick possible day one starter.

  • shawn

    ya i was surprised too … who knows if it is true, but word is it was Gilbert or nobody … personally i agree that Gilbert was the only CB i believed to be worth that pick .. i thought Dennard was 2nd round talent and Fuller late 1st round … I’m glad they went with Shazier !

  • Douglas Andrews

    Yeah I thought Gilbert or Fuller was the pick. I’ve never been high on Dennard his tape shows he grabs a lot probably to make up for speed/quickness.

  • Louis Goetz

    What are the chances that Antwon Blake or Isaiah Green has shown the Steelers something that makes the coaching staff believe that they can contribute on more than just special teams? What the explanation can there be? Can they really have faith in Brice McCain?

  • CrazyTerry

    Seattle also developed their players faster. And what the Seatle D did in the SB isn’t matched by any of the last 3 Steelers SB defenses for an entire game.

  • shawn

    Ya but they are completely different in one aspect which i think is the reason for their dominance …. THEY PRESS & are VERY PHYSICAL …. and absolutely CONTEST every single pass !!!

    Our secondary plays completely the Opposite … playing too far off the line & virtually conceding all catches in front of them and happy to make a tackle forcing the team to make long drives ( I absolutely HATE this strategy)

    Pressing & being Physical is the whole key to Seattles Secondary success !!!

    I wish we would do that … Cortez is built for it … we just need one more similar corner !