The Pittsburgh Steelers defense is consistently one of the best in the NFL, but if there has been a weak spot over the past decade, it has been the play at cornerback.
Since Heinz Field opened in 2001, Steelers fans have prayed and begged (for the love of God) to win in spite of an ex-cornerback crew which has included the likes of Chad Scott, Hank Poteat and the twilight years of Dewayne Washington and Bryant McFadden. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has had to worry more about how to cover his corners than opposing wide receivers. It’s worked until a high-scoring offense is on the other side of the field.
The Steelers’ starting cornerbacks in their Super Bowl 45 loss to Green Bay were a tailgate snack to Packers Pro-Bowl quarterback Aaron Rogers. He ate them alive for 304 yards and three touchdowns, thanking the Steelers cornerbacks all the way to Disney World. In their previous Super Bowl appearance, the Steelers narrowly escaped a 16-point Kurt Warner second-half comeback to win by a toe against the Cardinals.
The Steelers haven’t had a cornerback selected to the Pro Bowl since 1998. And it’s since 1996 that the Steelers have sent a cornerback and a safety together: current team intern Hall of Famer Rod Woodson and secondary coach Carnell Lake.
But if new starter Cortez Allen plays 2013 like he ended 2012, the Pro Bowl drought may be over. Due to Ike Taylor’s injury, Allen was pressed into full-time duty and did not disappoint. Allen not only played well in coverage, he showed a knack for causing turnovers, grabbing two interceptions and three forced fumbles in just three late-season starts.
We all hope his ball skills rub off on Taylor, who after 10 years still cannot catch a balloon if it was handed to him.
The healthy return of Taylor from a lower-leg injury will allow coach Lake to best use his assets. He can keep the speedy and physical Taylor on the outside wide receiver, and use Allen to cover quicker opponents. Allen’s 6-foot-1 frame and ability to play the angles also helps him to match up with taller wideouts like Cincinnati’s A.J. Green. In Week 16 Allen held Green, the AFC North’s top receiver, to six catches for 60 yards and no TDs.
This offseason, the Steelers were okay to let former cornerback Keenan Lewis leave in free agency without an offer, at least partially thanks to the efforts of Allen. Lewis played well last year in his first year as starter but like Taylor, he doesn’t force turnovers. Lewis had just one forced fumble and zero interceptions in his 16 starts.
Allen still has more to learn from his veteran coach. He gets lost in coverage to the outside at times and is forced to rely on his speed to recover. Given the way Lake has greatly improved the Steelers play at corner, the Steelers will likely have their best cornerback duo in decades.
Coupled with veteran safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, 2013 may be their best secondary since the days of the Steel Curtain, which means opposing offenses will not have a weakness to exploit in the Steelers D any longer.