Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Look at the Steelers Secondary

At the beginning of the week, Coach said there would be "major changes" coming to the lineup. As far as we can tell, this means that Willie Gay is going to take a seat in favor of Joe Burnett and/or Keenan Lewis. Coach also make the threat that Ike might be benched. We might be in the minority here, but we think this is a bad idea, and we're going to explain why. This week's mid-week analytic post takes a look at the Steelers secondary from three angles: the draft, the scheme, and personnel.

The Draft: A Story of Failed Investment

In 2003, the Steelers spent their first round pick on safety Troy Polamalu. Besides Troy, the current roster of the Steelers secondary is a story of failed investment. Let's take a look.

Deshea Townsend is the most tenured of the Steelers defensive backs. He was a 4th round pick in 1998, the year after the Steelers selected Chad Scott in the first round. For people who might think that Ike can't cover, do we have to bring up Chad Scott? We'll begin our analysis of the secondary here with Deshea. In his 11th season in black and gold, Deshea has been relegated to the nickel-back role. Last season, Townsend won the starting job over Bryant McFadden, but an injury bumped B-Mac into the starting role. This year, the job was flat-out handed to Willie Gay without any discussion of Deshea.

After the Steelers drafted Deshea in 1998, they spent two draft picks on defensive backs in 1999. In the second round they selected Scott Shields from Weber State, who played with the team for two years, only cracking the starting lineup for 2 games.

In 2000, the Steelers spent a 3rd round pick on Hank Poteat from Pittsburgh. Hank spent three years with the team, primarily as a return man, and never cracked the starting lineup. Poteat is still in the league, now with his 5th team, the Cleveland Browns. In his 10-year career he has started 18 games.

In 2002, the Steelers used their third round pick to draft safety Chris Hope. Hope cracked the starting lineup in 2004, the year the Steelers swung from 6-10 to 15-1, and started every game in the 2004 and 2005 season. The Steelers chose not to re-sign Hope in free agency and he was picked up by Tennessee, where made the Pro Bowl last year.

The Steelers spent the #16 overall pick on Troy Polamalu in 2003. As we've seen this season, Troy might mean more to the Steelers defense than any other player to any other defense in the league. Troy stepped into the starting lineup the same year as Hope, transforming the Steelers defense into one of the best in the league.

In the 4th round that year, the Steelers picked a little-known safety from Louisiana-Lafayette named Ike Taylor. At the time, the Steelers knew he would be a work in progress to convert into a cornerback, but they were willing to take on the challenge. Now in his 5th year as a full-time starter, Ike has started 69 games at corner for the Steelers.

In 2004, the Steelers traded up in the second round to take cornerback Ricardo Colclough. Colclough spent four years with the team, two of them as a returner before we discovered he couldn't hang on to the ball. We traded the 11th pick in the 2nd round to Indianapolis to move up to take Colclough. Anyone remember who Indy took with that pick? If you guessed Pro Bowler Bob Sanders, you would be correct.

The Steelers also brought in reserve safety Tyrone Carter in 2004. Carter has done a decent job filling in at both safety positions when needed. He was a 4th round pick of the Minnesota Vikings and has started 50 games in his 10-year NFL career.

After realizing they had made a mistake with Colclough, the Steelers were on damage control the next season, and selected Florida State corner Bryant McFadden in the second round. McFadden had a sharp learning curve the first few years and he got better with each season. However, the Steelers didn't have the money to retain him this past season, and he was lost in free agency to Arizona.

After losing Chris Hope to free agency, the Steelers brought in two big-hitting safeties in 2006. They brought in strong safety Ryan Clark from Washington and spent a third round pick on Anthony Smith from Syracuse. The Steelers quickly discovered that Smith was a show-boater that didn't fit their style of football. He was released after the 2008 season. Clark has been a starter since coming to Pittsburgh. Clark entered the league as an undrafted free agent out of LSU by the New York Giants.

In 2007, knowing that McFadden would likely hit free agency the next offseason, the Steelers used a 5th round pick on Willie Gay from Louisville. In his second year, Gay alternated time with Bryant McFadden at the starting corner role opposite Ike Taylor. In his third year, Gay has stepped in as a full-time starter.

Knowing that Anthony Smith was not part of the teams long term plans, they spent a 6th round selection on Ryan Mundy, a hometown guy from Woodland Hills and WVU. Mundy was placed on IR last season but returned this season to make the 53-man roster and has seen playing time in sub packages.

In 2009, the Steelers spent one of their 3rd round picks on Keenan Lewis, a big physical corner from Oregon State. Lewis hasn't seen much playing time this year.

The Steelers also spent a 5th rounder on Joe Burnett, a corner from Central Florida that also had punt return abilities. From what we saw of Burnett in the preseason, he had a difficult time hanging on to the ball, and with the rise of Stefan Logan, Burnett has mostly seen time on special teams as a gunner.

So let's summarize why we believe the story of the secondary in the Draft has been one of failed investment. By the numbers since 1998, the Steelers have taken:
1 in the first round (Polamalu)
3 in the second round (Shields, Colclough, McFadden)
4 in the third round (Smith, Hope, Poteat, Lewis)
2 in the fourth round (Townsend, Taylor)
2 in the fifth round (Gay, Burnett)
1 in the sixth round (Mundy)

Of the 8 defensive backs the Steelers have taken in the first three rounds, only two (Polamalu and Hope) have seen significant playing time. McFadden got some playing time, but was released to free agency before he reached his peak. The same argument could be made for Hope. Of the eight picks, half can be characterized as unsuccessful (Shields, Colclough, Smith, Poteat). Since Keenan Lewis is only a rookie, we're letting him slide in this analysis, there's still plenty of time to prove himself.

The Scheme

We're not in the locker room. We don't know what gets said or planned behind closed doors. But we do see the result on the field.

In Dick LeBeau's "zone-blitz" defense, corners are often forced to play on an island one-on-one against a receiver. Let's be honest here, how often do we see the Steelers double-covering a receiver? It's not very often. In the last two seasons, Ike Taylor has drawn the assignment of covering the likes of Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Larry Fitzgerald, Reggie Wayne and Ochostinko. For the most part, Ike has done an admirable job covering these guys.

The problem with the scheme is that Ike never gets any help, meaning that he can't be aggressive in coverage. With no safety help over the top, Ike knows he is the last line of defense between the opponents #1 receiver and the end zone. Because of this, Ike always has to play between his man and the end zone and can't afford to jump routes. When you look at corners like Asante Samuel that rack up a bunch of interceptions, a lot of them come from jumping out-routes. However, Samuel has played in defenses that give him help over the top, so if he jumps a route and the receiver makes a double-move and goes deep, there will be a safety there in coverage.

Ike tends to get beat a lot on come-back routes because he is forced to play 5-yards off the receiver, back on his heels in case the receiver tries to go deep. In the cover-2 defense that teams like Chicago and Indianapolis run, the defensive backs can be more aggressive in the first five yards because there is safety help over the top. You never see the Steelers playing press coverage because if their corners get beat off the ball, there is no help deep.

Since the corners don't get safety help over the top, they can't afford to jump routes. This is one of the primary reasons why the Steelers corners don't have any interceptions this season. Polamalu is really the only one in the secondary that jumps routes to make plays. As we've said many times, Ryan Clark doesn't look for the ball and Tyrone Carter doesn't have the jump on the ball that Polamalu does.

In conclusion, it isn't Ike's fault that receivers are always open in front of him. Granted, the Murphy catch this past week was different. If you're going to match-up one-on-one, you have to choose if you're going to give the receiver the inside or the outside. According to coach, there were two failures on the play. Ike was supposed to play the receiver to the inside, which he did not, and there was supposed to be safety help in the middle of the field. On Sunday, even though Willie Gay was getting beat all over the field, you still saw safeties sneaking up to play the run. Gradkowski routinely burned the safeties with a play-action fake, including on the long TD.

The Personnel

We've addressed the failures in the draft and the problems with the scheme. Now let's look at the personnel the Steelers have on their roster.

CB - Ike Taylor, William Gay, Deshea Townsend, Keenan Lewis, Joe Burnett, Anthony Madison
S - Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Tyrone Carter, Ryan Mundy

We are big believers in people defying their draft status. Just because someone is a first round pick doesn't automatically make them better than a fourth-round pick. But for starters, let's look at the draft status of each of the members of the Steelers secondary.

1 first round pick (Polamalu)
0 second round picks
1 third round pick (Lewis)
3 fourth round picks (Taylor, Carter, Townsend)
2 fifth round picks (Gay, Burnett)
1 sixth round pick (Mundy)
2 undrafted free agents (Clark, Madison)

Seeing as Keenan Lewis is a rookie, this means the Steelers have only one consistent player in their secondary that was picked in the first three rounds of the draft. As we outlined in the first section, it hasn't been for lack of drafting, but the Steelers have chosen not to retain certain players because of salary purposes.

Another personnel factor is veteran leadership. Of the 10 members of the Steelers secondary, four of them have under 3 years experience in the league. Anthony Madison, the special teams ace, is in his 4th year, and should be discounted from this equation because he doesn't play on defense. Do the Steelers have too many inexperienced players in their secondary? Personally, we don't think so, but injuries have a way of showing your weaknesses. Polamalu's injuries have shown that the Steelers safeties are vulnerable and out of position more often than we would like to think. Tyrone Carter is at least two steps slower than Polamalu, and doesn't fly to the ball with the same ferocity. Ryan Clark isn't great in pass coverage and is always looking for the big hit rather than the ball. We realize that Ryan is one of the leaders of the defense, and we hate to throw him under the bus like this, but without Polamalu in there, he's a completely different player.

So is there a solution for all of this? We would like to tell you that there's an easy fix, but looking at the personnel available, we can't say that there is. Behind Ike, Willie, and Deshea, the Steelers don't have a lot of experience at the cornerback position. Given the way the last few games have gone, we think it's a great decision to put the young guys in and get them some game experience to see what they're capable of. One thing we need to remember is not to pass judgment on these guys too fast. They're both rookies. Bryant McFadden had some terrible games as a rookie but grew into a solid player. Troy Polamalu blew some assignments as a rookie and now is the best safety in the game.

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