When looking back at the roster during the 2013 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers, one thing that sticks out to me is just how little turnover there is in the secondary. I say this with the awareness of the glaring caveat of longtime starting free safety Ryan Clark being replaced with the rare significant free agent signing of Mike Mitchell.
Other than that, however, it seems that just about everybody short of Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith is back in the mix this year, and I’m willing to bet that you probably didn’t even remember that he started last year on the roster. Curtis Brown is also out of the picture, though he would likely be continuing his recovery from an ACL tear by the time the regular season starts in September.
As a matter of fact, the Steelers have only added to the competition, signing cornerback Brice McCain for veteran minimum during free agency while drafting Shaquille Richardson, another cornerback, in the fifth round of the draft.
The Steelers traditionally like to carry 10 defensive backs, and in a normal season, they tend to split them up between six cornerbacks and four safeties.
Because of the versatility of some of their young safeties that they have around now, however, they have been keeping five of each the last couple years, since both Shamarko Thomas and Robert Golden are capable of playing cornerback.
Given the additions that the Steelers have made in the secondary, then, I can’t help but wonder if the team is giving serious consideration to carrying 11 defensive backs, given the key role that many of them already play on special teams.
The following players, to me, would seem to be locks to make and stick to the 53-man roster from the secondary, whether because of their defense or their special teams contributions: Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, William Gay, Antwon Blake, Troy Polamalu, Mitchell, Thomas, and Golden.
That’s already eight roster spots allotted to the secondary. Then you have Will Allen, who has played a huge role over the last two seasons on defense, contributes on special teams, and whom the Steelers were quick to re-sign after they lost him to an opportunity to start elsewhere at the beginning of last season. He practiced with the starters during OTAs while Polamalu was working out on his own.
McCain is a veteran nickel corner about whom defensive backs coach Carnell Lake spoke of positively earlier this offseason, along with Blake, as some of the lesser known players he believes may surprise those who questioned the team’s depth at cornerback.
Then there’s Richardson, who seems to be doing perfectly well for himself so far and showing good awareness of scheme as his coaches and teammates keep him on his toes. What’s more, he’s the only corner outside of the starting lineup that is six foot or taller.
This is not even to mention Isaiah Green, who spent last season bouncing between the active roster and the practice squad after initially making the final cut, and Devin Smith, who impressed enough to last the entire season on the practice squad a year ago.
It’s true that nobody will be mistaking these players for All-Pros any time soon, but many of them figure to have the potential to be stars on special teams at the very least, while slowly creeping up on contributing on defense.
The worst case scenario, other than injury, is that the Steelers have some strong competition this year to assemble their defensive backfield, with tough cuts to follow. Maybe one cut they choose not to make and decide to keep one more from the secondary than usual.