No matter how it is dissected, the Steelers defense does just about everything but stop traffic on the Parkway. They stop the run, sack the quarterback and disrupt the pass better than any team in the National Football League, though the latter might come as a surprise to people who want to deride their secondary.
In a season in which their defensive performance was as complete as any in team history, the Steelers led the league in scoring (232), rushing (62.8 yards per game) and sacks (48); were second in opposing passer rating (73.1); and were second in the AFC with 21 interceptions.
Nonetheless, after the Green Bay Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers zipped through their defense in Super Bowl XLV, the secondary has absorbed nearly as much criticism as gas prices. And it's the cornerbacks who receive the brunt of the blame, especially Bryant McFadden and nickel back William Gay, each of whom were targeted by Rodgers and repeatedly picked on in a 31-25 loss to the Packers.
"A lot of people pinpoint that game, but we played against an outstanding offense," McFadden said. "When you look at what they did, they executed on all cylinders throughout the playoffs and we didn't play as well as we did. But we had plays and we were still in position to win the game."
Then McFadden added, "We take a lot of blows. It's the nature of the business."
Six months later, it appears the Steelers are prepared to head into the season with the same trio of cornerbacks who lined up in the Super Bowl. They re-signed Ike Taylor, their best corner, to a new contract -- a move considered a top priority after the conclusion of the lockout. And they decided to bring back Gay, who was an unrestricted free agent, for one more season as their nickel back.
Sure, the Steelers drafted two cornerbacks with back-to-back picks in April -- Curtis Brown of Texas in the third round and Cortez Allen of The Citadel in the fourth -- but neither is even close to being ready to move out McFadden as the starting left cornerback. Brown and Allen have missed the past couple days of training camp with injuries, further delaying any chance they might have of supplanting Gay as the nickel back.
Safety Ryan Clark said the cornerbacks get a bad rap and are overshadowed in the Steelers defense because it's the only position that hasn't had a player in the Pro Bowl.
"I think our corners do a good job," Clark said. "I think we need to make more plays out there for people to see. I think it's hard when you have a Troy Polamalu who plays safety and makes all those plays. They look at corners in a different way.
"It's a weird deal, but the blame has to go somewhere when something goes wrong I guess."
Indeed, the Steelers trailed only the New England Patriots (25) in the AFC in interceptions, but cornerbacks accounted for just five of their 21 interceptions. And while their opposing passer rating was bested only by the Packers (67.2) in the regular season, the secondary became downright accommodating when they faced an elite quarterback.
Drew Brees (305 yards), Tom Brady (350) and Rodgers (304) combined to complete nearly 70 percent of their passes (88 of 126) for 959 yards and eight touchdowns in three games against them. The opposing passer rating in those games was 137.6 -- 64 points above their season average of 73.1.
"That's football," Gay said. "You're the only one out of the front seven, the only one that the fans can really see. They know if you get beat here or beat there, you must not be doing something right. But they don't understand what goes on, as far as seven on seven, so they look at the cornerbacks in the secondary and say it's their fault."
It's probably not going to stop, either, not until the fans see plays of a more positive nature. Taylor makes them all the time, but he doesn't intercept passes. In fact, cornerbacks have accounted for only 13 interceptions in the past three seasons.
"I guess sometimes we feel as though we're probably the ones getting picked on by the media or whatever, but it comes with the territory," McFadden said. "We got some incredible beasts in front of us so they should get all the praise. We got to be the guys on the back end who get all the lashes all the time
From the PG