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Sunday, April 12, 2015

A look at the Steelers, Part VI

With Troy Polamalu's retirement, it's a good time to take at look at the Steelers' defensive backfield as the next part of this series.

Polamalu's retirement was no unexpected. The Steelers asked him to seriously consider hanging up his helmet and expected him to do the right thing.

Polamalu's once special skills had all but completely eroded - at least the speed portion of his game - and he was getting by on his instincts and ability to diagnose quickly.

But they will be better off in 2015 with Shamarko Thomas at strong safety - provided he stays healthy. That has been a major issue for Thomas in his first two seasons, as he's missed seven games with injuries.

Thomas has excellent speed and coverage ability. His only drawback at this point has been those health issues.

That was one reason Will Allen was brought back immediately after Polamalu retired. Allen is a solid backup who can play both free and strong safety and rarely gets himself out of position. If Thomas is injured or falls flat on his face, Allen has proven over the years that the team can win with him at the back of its defense.

Mike Mitchell will be the other starter and there's also the possibility that if Thomas falters, he could move to strong safety with either Robert Golden or Allen playing free safety.

Mitchell had a tough season in his first year in Pittsburgh, but that's not uncommon. In fact, if you back at the man he replaced, Ryan Clark, you'll see some similarities between their first seasons with the Steelers.

Mitchell had 71 tackles, three pass defenses and two forced fumbles in his first season with the Steelers. Clark had 72 tackles, 1 interception and two pass defenses.

Clark missed all but six games in 2007 after nearly dying following a game in Denver, but bounced back in 2008 with 87 tackles, six pass defenses and an interception in 14 games.

Mitchell, who is a better athlete than Clark could ever claim, should be better in 2015.

Might the Steelers select a safety in the draft? Possibly, but this is not a great year for safeties unless you're going to convert a corner. They've been linked with Alabama strong safety Landon Collins a lot by national draftniks, but I don't see them going out of their way to take a box safety when they're looking for more playmaking ability in the secondary.

It's more likely that they'll got with a combination of Thomas, Mitchell, Allen and Golden as their top four and bring in a younger player or two to see if they can crack that top four or add something as a special teams ace.

At cornerback, the team is, quite frankly, a mystery right now.

William Gay will be one starting corner, that much we know. And he's solid with the ability to make some spectacular plays at times. But he's also limited by average speed for the position.

Cortez Allen will get a shot to reclaim the other starting spot after falling apart last season. Allen struggled with the new emphasis by the league on illegal contact and hands to the face by defenders, seemingly drawing at least one penalty per game for an infraction in the preseason and early on. It shook his confidence and he never recovered.

But he's a bright young man and the talent is there. Like Gay, he lacks high-end straight-line speed, but he's certainly capable, if he's got his head right.

Antwon Blake was brought back as the nickel corner and the diminutive speedster showed at times why defensive backs coach Carnell Lake offered him plenty of praise at the draft.

He's feisty and will stick his nose in on running plays, but he's somewhat limited by his size, something that can be exploited by the league's bigger receivers.

B.W. Webb, a former fourth-round pick of the Cowboys, was signed after being released by Dallas at the end of the preseason. The Steelers like the 5-11, 190-pound corner, who was timed at 4.51 seconds in the 40 at the combine two years go while displaying a 40.5-inch vertical, and he can't be discounted as being in the mix to do more in 2015 once he's had an entire offseason and training camp in Pittsburgh.

But it is undeniable that the Steelers need to add some young talent to this group, perhaps even taking a corner in the first round of the draft for the first time since selecting Chad Scott in 1997.


Anonymous said...

"Mitchell had a tough season in his first year in Pittsburgh, but that's not uncommon. In fact, if you back at the man he replaced, Ryan Clark, you'll see some similarities between their first seasons with the Steelers."

That strongly implies Ryan Clark struggled in his first year with Pittsburgh, or at least had a "tough season." Could you be more specific? What similarities? I thought Clark was a success in his first year, and Mitchell was not. Mitchell could still turn it around, but while there are always technically similarities (they both run, they are both black), I don't consider 2006 Clark and 2014 Mitchell similar at all.

Dale Lolley said...

Look at the stats. They're practically the same.
Clark played fewer games, but he had issues that first season getting accustomed to playing with Polamalu.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dale Lolley said...

And please don't inject race into my blog. Take that BS somewhere else.

Anonymous said...

The only reason Clark had more success than Mitchell was because he was a part of a good defense in 06, and that year wasn't even one of our great defenses. He was ok but not spectacular. Mitchell was also ok, but in a mediocre defense. He'll certainly get better!

Dale Lolley said...

Exactly, Anonymous 1:35. That is, at least, what they are hoping.

He has the tools to be sure.

Anonymous said...

When Ryan Clark first showed up many fans, myself included, didn't like him as well as Anthony Smith.
That was until his boast against Tom Brady exposed him and Ryan Clark took over. He never looked back and hopefully Mitchell won't either. Saying that I love Landon Collins and feel he will be a fantastic safety in this league.

Mrs. Isaac Redman

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say Thomas's only draw back is health. They and us have absolutely no idea if he can or cannot play. That's kinda worth mentioning.

Lotta unicorn wishes and leprechaun dreams with this secondary. Almost no knowns. Gay. That's it. The rest are all question marks of varying degrees.

marc said...

I would say the steelers have a much better idea of what Thomas is capable of than we do.

I never thought Anthony smith was that good and welcomed the signing of clark at the time.

in some ways, I think Mitchell reminds me of Anthony smith. too much of a strong safety mentality I fear. hoping a healthy groin and better understanding of his role will payoff next season.

regardless, they must draft a high quality CB.

Anonymous said...

They may, but it's still a guess. Like Jonathan Scott or Cam Thomas or Cortez Allen or a whole host of other half speed shells based evals/observations that turned out to be wishful thinking than bankable projections. We are all still hoping. Nothing more. Including the coaches.

Qwikdoc said...

The reality that Willie Gay is our best CB is frightening. The league has tilted the balance in favor of the passing game and the Steelers have done little to nothing to address the dire need at CB. Our only hope for 2015 is that we develop a top notch pass rush to help out our over matched secondary. Keeping my fingers crossed.

datruth4life said...

Dale, Gerry Dulac keeps mentioning how the Steelers are very high on CB/S Eric Rowe as a starting CB. You think he'd be a good fit on this D at CB? And so, do you think they would have to get him in the 2nd round or do you think there is a possibility he might last to the 3rd?

Dale Lolley said...

I don't think there's any way Rowe lasts until the third. Heck, he might not last until their pick in the second.