The Steelers defense last year was ranked #1 overall in the league, and #1 in pass defense.
Against the pass they allowed a league low 171 yds per game. Those numbers were a huge improvement from 2010 when they allowed 214 yds per game and finished 12th in pass defense. Even if they didn’t make it to the Super Bowl last year, the defense was able to put the building blocks in place for the future.
The drastic improvement is due in part to the great season that Ike Taylor had of course but also the improved play of Keenan Lewis and the addition of both Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown. Drafting 2 cornerbacks with the expectation of improving your secondary was a no brainer considering the lack of depth and performance in years past. William Gay was as inconsistent as he was good, and when he left for Arizona, the battle was on for who would take his spot. So far the Steelers have definitely gotten their money’s worth out of Cortez Allen especially but Keenan Lewis is poised to take over that starting job after a solid camp and preseason. Allen is still in the running, and nothing has been decided yet, but it’s clearly between those two and no matter who wins, the Steelers defense is the ultimate winner.
The addition of former Steelers do it all secondary extrordinaire Carnell Lake as Defensive Backs coach has done wonders to the cornerbacks performance. His knowledge from years of playing both Safety and Cornerback not only help him teach his guys from a football technique standpoint but also helps him relate to them on a player level.
Lewis was drafted out of Oregon State in the 3rd round in 2009 with the hopes of one day competiting for the very job he’s shooting for now. It was a rough campaign in 2010 when Lewis landed himself in Mike Tomlin’s doghouse in preseason and never really got out of it the remainder of that year. His outburst in preseason was enough for him to see little playing time until late in the year. He’s head a few years now to hone his skills and after last season at nickel back he’s been earning the praise of his coaches:
“We feel fortunate to have corners with that kind of length,” LeBeau said. “We’ve had Ike for some time. Yet when people see him in person they say, ‘We didn’t know he was that big.’ Ike is a big corner. Both Keenan and Cortez are very tall, reasonably well-weighted corners, and all three can run.”
Lewis on his opportunity: “Definitely, I have things to work on,” he said. “I just come out and compete. I don’t try to worry about anybody’s spots. I just try to get better day by day. When you are out there with the 1s (the starters), there are always opportunities. But, like I said, you can make plays any point in time. Whenever they need me, I am ready to go.”
Cortez Allen, the special teams ace out of the Citadel has fought through injuries in his rookie year but did see action in the dime defense last year and he’s taken his game to the next level now in 2012. Allen has had a great camp and been solid in preseason. When you watch him you can see his football instincts evident even at such a young age. He’s got good closing speed and most importantly he’s a good, reliable tackler.
Curtis Brown hasn’t been in the spotlight as much as Lewis and Allen have but he’s received his share of reps in the preseason games. He’s struggled at times, getting turned around in coverage or failing to get his head around when the ball is in the air. He’s not been bad though and in fact has had good, close coverage on many occasions. He’s been the target more so in preseason than Allen has been so that’s opened him up to more opportunities for both success and areas to improve on.
If Keenan Lewis does ultimately win the starting job and Allen gets the nickelback spot, then Curtis Brown will be the dime back and things will be looking very good with so much talented depth available. Dick Lebeau is the ultimate winner in all of this because for the first time in many many years, the Steelers have a secondary they can build on for the future.
Photos courtesy of Zimbio.com