Turning our attention to the defense in our series of looking at the roster battles for the upcoming Steelers training camp, we’ll start with the Safety position. Before we get started though, big kudos to my writing partner Marc for some great stuff with the offense; I know I’m looking forward to seeing what he comes up with as we start on the defense now.
The current roster at both Strong and Free Safety is as follows: Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Ryan Mundy, Will Allen, Da-mon Cromartie-Smith, and Myron Rolle.
Logic tells you that Mike Tomlin will keep 4 players at this position; 2 starters and of course 2 backups. It’s no secret that yet again there is no one on the roster that is going to unseat either Polamalu or Clark right now so really this camp focuses on who is going to take those backup spots. With the way Polamalu throws his body around, coupled with the fact that he isn’t getting any younger and Clark is a vicious hitter still, the backups will inevitably see some field time either by necessity or on those rare occasions when the game is well into control in the 4th quarter.
Troy Polamalu: Since being drafted by Bill Cowher back in 2003, Polamalu has played a full 16 game season just 5 times in his career; last season being the most recent. He finished up 2011 with 91 tackles, 1 sack and 2 interceptions but most importantly is that he was on the field all year long. Even that concussion scare against the Chiefs didn’t keep him out of any games. Entering his 9th year now in the league and having just signed a new 4 yr deal, he should be able to finish out that contract but beyond that it’s anybody’s guess if he’ll still be in one piece by then. As long as he’s on the field though, the Steelers are a different defense; a more aggressive defense. Dick Lebeau gives him pretty much free reign to improvise as he sees fit; and while he can sometimes guess wrong, he’s right more often that not. He’s your starter at Strong Safety this year.
Ryan Clark: The vocal and often outspoken counterpart to Polamalu, Clark has been in the league a year longer than Polamalu but he’s also seen his share of injuries. The NFL may continue to try and find ways to make the Steelers defensive big hitter tone it down some but that doesn’t bother Clark anymore than it makes him try and avoid the knock out blow. Last year was his best season to date, finishing up with 100 tackles, 1 sack, and 1 interception. He also played in all 16 games; missing only what maybe was the most crucial; the playoff game in Denver. His sickle cell trait will keep him from every game in the mile high city for the rest of his career. Clark still has 2 years left on his most recent deal, and his cap hit the next 2 seasons is well over 4 million. Should the Steelers not sign him to a new deal before then he’ll have been in the league 12 years at that time. I would look for the team to seriously start looking at the new big time Free Safety via the draft next year but for the time being, Clark is your man again except in week 1 of 2012.
Ryan Mundy: The primary back and special teams ace, Ryan Mundy has been with the team for what seems like 10 years, at least I think so. In reality though he was drafted in 2009 but has been a staple in the primary reserve role at both Safety positions since. When Clark goes out for games in Denver or for any other reason, Mundy is there to step in. His value on special teams is equally important to the Steelers, so his roster spot is secure again as the primary backup and special teams demon. Against Tennessee on last season, in October, he caught a 33 yd pass from Danny Sepulveda on a fake punt that worked beautifully. Mundy is a solid, smart, reliable player who knows the defense and has the confidence of the coaches in his corner; he’ll be the primary backup this season again.
Now here is where it starts to get interesting; assuming 4 Safeties are kept, this position is up for grabs between Cromartie-Smith, Myron Rolle, Will Allen, and possibly even Cortez Allen who some think would make a great free safety. Cortez will be in the mix with the other young cornerbacks fighting it out for that starting job opposite Ike Taylor this year so for now we’ll consider that his home until things change.
Will Allen is the veteran and most likely to return to the lineup here. He’s been with the Steelers since 2010 after coming over from Tampa Bay where he was mainly a reserve player there as well. He did start all 16 games back in 2006, and he knows the Steelers defense well enough to fill in when neeeded. That fact that he’s a veteran who knows the defense and also a special teams ace is something the Steelers coaching staff loves.
Da-mon Cromartie-Smith has been on and off the practice squad since 2010, but he was signed to the active roster last December and he saw action both on defense and special teams the rest of the regular season and the playoff game. He’s not the strongest, flashiest, or fastest guy but if doesn’t make the final roster he’ll likely be a candidate for the practice squad again. Given his experience gained last year, he would have the edge over Myron Rolle at this point.
Myron Rolle: Likely the underdog out of this group with the biggest up hill battle to make the team. It certainly isn’t for his intelligence though, if that were the case he’d be supplanting most of the players in the entire league. Rolle is a Rhodes Scholar; and came off an impressive college campaign at Florida State where he started 35 games and had 206 tackles. He decided to forgo his senior year though and attend Oxford University to study for his Rhodes Scholarship. Missing that final year likely hurt his chances though as far as the NFL is concerned; most feel he doesn’t possess the closing speed and instincts to be a consistent force on the field.
All in all, I don’t expect this position to change much from the last couple of seasons: Polamalu and Clark will be your starters; Mundy and Allen will be the backups with Cromartie-Smith likely landing a practice squad gig again. Keep your eye on the cornerback battle though in the future; depending on how things work out, Cortez Allen’s name might be popping up again.