Based on his play last year, I've come around on IKE TAYLOR. Every week, he plays against the other team's best receiver and most of the time he comes off pretty well. He is a top level cover corner. The problem is he can't catch a cold, let alone an interception. I'm reasonably sure that Taylor has dropped more interceptions than any starting cornerback the past five-plus years. He just can't catch. Which is too bad, because I think he'd be somewhere around the seventh best corner in the NFL if he picked off, say, five passes a year. But the drops seem to hurt the team.
Opposite Taylor is a new old face. BRYANT MCFADDEN started the majority of the 2008 Super Bowl season. Then a free agent, he went to Arizona where he had an average year. The Steelers traded for him on draft day (using the fifth round pick they got for Santonio Holmes) and he's already beaten out his replacement, WILLIAM GAY. McFadden is good and I wanted him to stay, but the Cards gave him more money than he was worth. He signed a three year contract when he came back and I think he's a good #2 corner.
Gay really struggled last year, but since the whole secondary stunk, it's tough to pin it all on him. A part-time starter during the Super Bowl season, he didn't blossom as expected. I did read an article that said he's good in man-to-man but has a hard time in zone. And Pittsburgh played a TON of zone last year while trying to compensate for missing Troy P. I'm not sure Gay is even going to be the nickel back with the other young corners on the roster.
KEENAN LEWIS was a third round rookie from Oregon State last year and missed a considerable part of the season due to injury. The Steelers were high on him when they drafted him and he's gotten a lot of PT this preseason. I think he's in their long term plans, as opposed to Gay.
JOE BURNETT was a fifth round rookie from Central Florida last year and played a fair amount. Coming off the bench late in the Oakland game, his first play he dropped a pass that hit him in the chest. It was a win if he had held on. But the Steelers seemed to like him and he is also playing this preseason. Again, I think Gay is the loser because of this.
The Steelers took CREZDON BUTLER from Clemson in the fifth round this year. Bit of a surprise with five corners on the roster with experience (counting Lewis' limited time). ANTHONY MADISON is a special teams wizard who only plays on the defense when emergency dictates.
DAVID PITTMAN was a third round pick of the Ravens in 2006 who was in the United Football League by 2009. That's not a good thing. Pittsburgh brought him to camp this year. I wouldn't expect him to stick.
Overall, this is a pretty good crop of cornerbacks. Taylor and McFadden are better than good and would contribute a lot if they could snare a few passes. Gay may return to his 2008 form as an ocassional fill-in and nickel/dime guy. Lewis and Burnett are young but show signs of being NFL-caliber CBs. That's five decent corners, plus anybody else who makes it. With decent safety play, I think this is a team strength, not the case last year.
GRADE -(would be a four if they could catch)
When he's healthy, TROY POALAMALU is arguably the best safety in the game (a lot of folks give that honorific to Bob Sanders. It's certainly a valid discussion, at least). But he wasn't healthy last year and the entire defense collapsed as Dick LeBeau tried to scheme around the loss. It didn't work. Troy should not be on special teams. He's too important.
When healthy in 2008, he was a demon against the run and the pass. He's the best all around safety I've ever watched play. I've heard media pundits have said he's not playing well in the preseason and is playing slow.
He's not playing his 100% kamikaze style, but it's preseason and he's coming off an injury. I thought he looked plenty fast and played well in his limited preseason action.
RYAN CLARK is back on the other side. Better against the run than the pass, he had a pretty bad year with Troy out. I think even when Troy is in, Clark has trouble helping out in the pass game and I'm not a big fan. We'll see how he does this year.
Tyrone Carter has been the main fill-in the past three years, but they let him go and he recently signed with the Redskins. Carter's biggest fault was that he was no Troy P. But neither is anybody else.
RYAN MUNDY got a fair amount of PT last year and had some good and some bad. It's not clear if he's the #3 safety wtih Carter's departure.
That's because former Buckeye WILL ALLEN (he of the HUGE interception against Michigan) was signed as a free agent. He's had an okay NFL career and has been coming off the bench during the preseason. I think he can be a nice #3 safety this year.
JUSTIN THORNTON is a rookie free agent out of Kansas. The Lions were driving in the first preseason game and Dede Dorsey went up the middle and was about to score when Thornton came up and leveled him. Ball popped loose, Steelers recovered a score was averted. It looked pretty good. I hope he gets a chance.
TUFF HARRIS was on the practice squad last year and in camp this year. But he hurt his shoulder and has been cut. DA'MON CROMARTIE-SMITH, a rookie free agent safety had been in camp but cut already. He was brought back in Harris' roster spot.
Trae Williams was signed to the practice squad last last year but cut in June, so he's not in the picture.
If Mundy progresses and Will Allen stays healthy, they've got some depth at safety. Which they'll need, because Troy has missed some serious time since being drafted. But when he's healthy, WOW! Clark is perceived to be better than I think, so I guess he's okay back there.