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Top 12 cornerbacks on Steelers draft board

The bad news is we can forget about seeing Josh Norman in a Steelers uniform.

Well, it’s not really news because it’s fairly obvious. The Steelers don’t have nearly enough cap space to sign the free agent cornerback.

The good news is that if a team picking ahead of the Steelers in the 2016 NFL draft signs Norman, it would increase the Steelers’ chances of having an elite cornerback available when they pick at No. 25. Norman’s new team would likely pass on a cornerback in the first round and set off a chain reaction of cornerbacks sliding down the board.

Babies have been born and graduated from high school since the last time the Steelers drafted a cornerback in the first round. They chose Chad Scott with the No. 24 pick in the 1997 draft.

Could this be the year?

If it isn’t, there might be mass protests outside Heinz Field.

The Steelers’ pass defense has gone from first in the NFL in 2011 and 2012 to ninth in 2013 to 27th in 2014 to 30th in 2015. But they don’t necessarily have to draft a cornerback in the first round to fix the problem. They do, however, need to take one somewhere in the early rounds.

These 12 cornerbacks are ranked from best to worst. If Mike Tomlin hasn’t had a phone conversation with at least one of these guys by the time the third round ends on the night of Friday, April 29, the Steelers will have some explaining to do.

Jalen Ramsey of Florida State isn’t on this list because he’s more of a cornerback/safety hybrid, but if he were he’d be No. 1. If he somehow slips to No. 25, the Steelers should run to the podium with his name on the card. But it’s not going to happen.

These players are ranked based on scouting reports on NFL Draft Scout and NFL.com as well as videos from Draft Breakdown.

No. 1: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida

Junior, 5’10”, 204 pounds

Hargreaves is a virtual lock to go in the top 10, so the Steelers won’t get him unless they trade up. While the ranking of the rest of the cornerback class is up for debate, Hargreaves is the clear-cut No. 1. He’s a willing tackler in run support and doesn’t give up many yards after the catch. A three-time all-SEC first-teamer and an All-American in 2015, Hargreaves intercepted 10 passes and broke up 27 in three seasons.

No. 2: Eli Apple, Ohio State

Sophomore, 6’1″, 199 pounds

Eli Apple has a little more length than Vernon Hargreaves III, but he’s not as polished. He intercepted three passes and broke up 10 for the national-champion Buckeyes in 2014. He secured the title by intercepting Marcus Mariota in the national championship game. The ball skills are there, but Apple’s tackling skills are a mixed bag and his technique could make him vulnerable to pass interference calls at the next level. He and the Steelers have been linked in multiple mock drafts. If the Steelers draft him, they might have to put up with a few rookie mistakes. But the payoff might be worth it.

No. 3: William Jackson III, Houston

Senior, 6’0″, 189 pounds

William Jackson III is like a sports car that looks really good in the show room. He led the nation with 23 passes defended in 2015 and returned two of his five interceptions for touchdowns. He picked off two passes at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, including one that clinched Houston’s 38-24 win over Florida State. Jackson was third among cornerbacks with a 4.37-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. Jackson isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty tackling but his hits don’t seem to have much impact. He also uses his head a lot. He’ll need to clean that up to avoid penalties and fines in the NFL. Eli Apple seems like a safer pick, but it would be a tough call if the Steelers are on the clock and have to choose between Apple and Jackson. There’s a chance a team picking ahead of them makes the decision for them.

No. 4: Mackensie Alexander, Clemson

Sophomore, 5’10”, 190 pounds

Mackensie Alexander certainly has the confidence that’s required at the cornerback position. At the NFL Scouting Combine he declared himself the best cornerback in the draft. That might seem like a lot of hot air coming from someone who made no interceptions in two years at Clemson. Part of the reason he had no interceptions and just 11 passes defended, however, is that quarterbacks avoided him. According to NFL.com he allowed less than 30 percent of the passes thrown his way to be completed. The potential is there for Alexander to be a shutdown corner in the NFL, but his lack of ball awareness is concerning. Against Florida State he was so focused on the guy he was covering that he didn’t notice Dalvin Cook running for a 75-yard touchdown until it was too late. The Steelers should take Apple or Jackson ahead of Alexander.

No. 5: Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech

Junior, 5’11”, 187 pounds

Kendall Fuller has the NFL in his bloodlines. His brother Kyle is a cornerback for the Bears, his brother Corey is a wide receiver for the Lions and his brother Vincent played safety for seven years with the Titans and Lions. Multiple scouting reports suggest that Kendall is the most talented Fuller brother, and as a freshman he led the ACC with six interceptions and broke up 11 passes. Despite playing through a fractured wrist in 2014, Fuller led the ACC with 13 passes defended. Fuller tore his meniscus before the 2015 season and could only play three games before deciding to have surgery. Fuller’s durability is a concern, but he’s worth a second-round pick.

No. 6: Zack Sanchez, Oklahoma

Junior, 5’11”, 185

Zack Sanchez leads the 2016 draft class with seven interceptions in 2015. One of those picks was the game-winner in a 31-24 overtime win over Tennessee. Sanchez has logged 15 interceptions in three years at Oklahoma. It’s hard not to like Sanchez after seeing the high-impact tackles he makes despite a lack of size that could limit him to nickel back in the NFL. He’ll probably be available to the Steelers in the second round or later. At worst, Sanchez could be a key player on special teams.

No. 7: Xavien Howard, Baylor

Junior, 6’0″, 201 pounds

Xavien Howard has the size and ball skills desired in an NFL cornerback. He intercepted four passes and broke up 13 in 2014 and intercepted five passes and broke up 10 in 2015. His speed is questionable, however. He ran the 40 in 4.58 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine. Only six cornerbacks ran slower. He knocked that time down to 4.45 at his pro day. Howard’s playing style sometimes forces the flags to come out, but that physical nature also helps make him an attractive prospect. Howard might not be a Day 1 starter, but he’s a solid second-round pick and comes with a lot of upside.

No. 8: Sean Davis, Maryland

Senior, 6’1″, 201 pounds

Sean Davis has been a late riser in the pre-draft rankings. He might be listed as a cornerback, but his skill set is better suited to safety. He tackles better than any cornerback projected to go in the early rounds. Davis led the Big Ten with 115 tackles in 2014 and made 313 in 50 games at Maryland. He was second in the NCAA with five forced fumbles in 2015. Not surprisingly, Davis led all cornerbacks with 21 bench-press reps at the NFL Scouting Combine. With Will Allen unsigned and Shamarko Thomas no more than a special teams contributor, the Steelers also have a need at safety. Sean Davis would be a solid third-round pick.

No. 9: Cyrus Jones, Alabama

Senior, 5’10”, 197 pounds

Cyrus Jones fits the profile of Steelers cornerbacks in 2015. On tape it looks like he’s either getting beat or making an interception. He did lead the SEC with 13 passes defended in 2014. He was a receiver as a freshman but moved to defense in 2013 and has seven interceptions in three seasons. He’s penalty-prone and might be best suited to sub-packages in the NFL. His biggest contribution might be as a punt returner with four touchdowns on punt returns in 2015. His character will need to be scrutinized because he was arrested for domestic violence last April but the charges were dropped. Jones is a third-round pick at the earliest, and he’d provide better value if he slips into the late rounds.

No. 10: KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame

Junior, 5’11”, 192 pounds

KeiVarae Russell sat out the 2014 season because of an academic issue and missed the last two games of 2015 with a broken leg. He had five interceptions and 12 pass breakups in the 36 games he did play. Russell seemed to give up a lot of short passes against USC last season, but stepped up in the fourth quarter with an interception and a deflection that a teammate intercepted. The Irish won the game 41-31. Russell can fight through the trash and makes a nice effort as a tackler. He’d be worth a shot for the Steelers in the third round or later.

No. 11: D.J. White, Georgia Tech

Senior, 5’11”, 193 pounds

D.J. White was second among cornerbacks at the NFL Scouting Combine with a 132-inch broad jump, right behind Jalen Ramsey and right in front of Vernon Hargreaves III. While he’s not in the company of those elite defensive backs overall, White is another player who the Steelers could pick up in the third round or later. He intercepted seven passes and broke up 21 in three years at Georgia Tech. He also forced four fumbles. He plays with a clean technique that doesn’t trigger penalties. He’s a little ragged as a tackler, however.

No. 12: Artie Burns, Miami

Junior, 6’0″, 193 pounds

Three mock drafts on NFL.com have Artie Burns going to the Steelers in the first round, but he’s an overrated prospect. Burns led the ACC with six interceptions in 2015. But one came against Bethune-Cookman and another came against Florida Atlantic, not exactly the highest level of competition. He intercepted a pass against Nebraska, but the receiver ran the wrong route on the play. When it comes to tackling, Burns dives at ankles and ball carriers often drag him for a few yards before they go down. Burns would be a major reach in the first round and shouldn’t be considered until Day 3.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

Martavis Bryant suspension tames Steelers’ lofty 2016 expectations

Thank you, Martavis Bryant.

Not for getting suspended for a year, but rather for giving Steelers fans six months to get used to the possibility that the Steelers might not be as great as everyone thinks they’ll be.

Bryant chose not to appeal his impending one-year suspension, and it became official on Monday, according to Pro Football Talk.

After being suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season, the next step was supposed to be a 10-game suspension. To be suspended for a full year, Bryant either had to fail two more drug tests or not show up for them.

Perhaps Bryant smoked marijuana again and that’s why he ducked the tests. Perhaps he’s just not taking his football career seriously enough to show up for the tests. Perhaps he’s fighting depression, as his agent Brian Fettner says via ESPN.com.

If Bryant did light up, then the marijuana is medicinal for Steelers fans. It’s a disappointment booster shot so that the heartbreak won’t be so debilitating if the Steelers offense isn’t potent enough to carry them to a championship in 2016.

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Steelers can’t afford any more setbacks in Roethlisberger Era

Have all Steelers fans breathed their sigh of relief that Tom Brady won’t be in the Super Bowl?

Good. Let’s limit our reaction to just that, a sigh of relief. There’s no reason to celebrate.

We saw how silly the Bengals looked tweeting away after the Broncos beat the Steelers 23-16 in the AFC divisional playoffs last week. We don’t want to be like that, at least not anymore.

Sure, the Steelers’ record of six Super Bowl wins would have been in danger if the Patriots won their fifth this season. But the Steelers could have spared the world a week of nauseating Brady-Manning hype had Fitzgerald Toussaint just hung on to the football in Denver.

All that fawning over Brady and Manning wasn’t much easier to stomach than another Patriots Super Bowl appearance would have been.

The Steelers would have brought a fresh face to the AFC championship game. They haven’t been there since 2010. The Patriots, meanwhile, have been to all five conference championship games since the last time the Steelers advanced that far.

Deep playoff runs are the norm in New England. Just making the playoffs isn’t even the norm in Pittsburgh.

If the Steelers make the playoffs next season, it will be the first time Ben Roethlisberger or Mike Tomlin have been to the playoffs in three straight years.

Roethlisberger turns 34 on March 2. He doesn’t have time to miss the playoffs every third year if he wants to win a third and fourth Super Bowl ring and get a seat at the table with Brady, Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana.

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Steelers ride out Burfict storm, conquer Bengals

Will the Pittsburgh Steelers win Super Bowl 50?

Who knows.

Even if they don’t, their efforts in 2015 won’t be entirely in vain.

That’s because thanks to the Steelers, the Bengals won’t be winning the Super Bowl.

The Steelers extended the Bengals’ playoff futility with an emotional 18-16 wild-card win Saturday night at Cincinnati.

Among Steelers fans, Whoever Plays the Ravens and Whoever Plays the Patriots are the most popular second-favorite teams.

There are plenty of intangible reasons to hate the Ravens, Patriots and even the Broncos, and the Steelers will have a chance to settle at least one of those scores during these playoffs.

The Steelers and Bengals, however, have become eye-for-an-eye rivals. The Bengals ended Le’Veon Bell’s season two years in a row. There was nothing dirty about Reggie Nelson’s hit in the 2014 season finale, but Vontaze Burfict’s hit this season at Pittsburgh was a little dicey, and he didn’t exactly show any remorse.

Then in Week 14 at Cincinnati Burfict tried to take out Ben Roethlisberger’s knees in a game in which players on both teams paid more money in fines than a lot of people earn in three years.

It remains to be seen if Burfict accomplished his mission to incapacitate Roethlisberger and ultimately sabotage the Steelers’ championship hopes. He knocked Roethlisberger out of Saturday’s game – temporarily – on what technically was a clean sack in the third quarter. But does anyone seriously think that Burfict drove Roethlisberger’s shoulder into the turf by accident?

(UPDATE: A video on Twitter reveals that Burfict whacked Roethlisberger’s shoulder with his knee after Roethlisberger was down. So no, it wasn’t a clean play.)

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Steelers, Bengals raise stakes in bitter rivalry

The Pittsburgh Steelers got just what they wanted for Christmas.

The Bengals.

The Steelers did what they had to do to make the playoffs. They beat the Browns 28-12 at Cleveland Sunday and got the help they needed in Buffalo when the Bills beat the Jets 22-17.

Bills cornerback Mario Butler – the anti-Ryan Succop – flew in like a superhero to break up what probably would have been a game-winning touchdown pass to Kenbrell Thompkins with 24 seconds left.

Now the sixth-seeded Steelers (10-6) are right back where they were at this time last year. They’re about to face a division rival in a wild-card game, possibly without their running back.

It’s too early to tell if DeAngelo Williams, who left Sunday’s game with an ankle injury, will be ready to go against the third-seeded Bengals (12-4). Perhaps it’s fitting that the Steelers play in Cincinnati on Saturday night, because like Le’Veon Bell last year Williams’ stride will be watched more closely this week than John Travolta’s during the opening credits of “Saturday Night Fever.”

The Steelers could have been a dead team walking after last week’s costly Baltimore flop, but the mental fortitude they showed in bouncing back could be evidence that unlike last season they can overcome the loss of their starting running back and win a playoff game.

If they don’t, it would be harder to swallow than last year’s wild-card loss to the Ravens at Heinz Field.

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Inexcusable loss puts Steelers’ playoff hopes in jeopardy

The rest of the NFL can come out from under the bed.

All those teams that were shaking in their shoes at the thought of facing the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs don’t have to worry now, because they probably won’t have to.

Even if they do, the Steelers showed in Sunday’s confounding 20-17 loss to the Baltimore Ravens that there’s really nothing to fear.

For the Steelers, losing to downtrodden teams was so 2014.

And 2013.

And 2012.

Losses to the Raiders (4-12), Titans (6-10) and Browns (5-11) sank the Steelers’ season in 2012. The Vikings (5-10-1) and Raiders (4-12) got them in 2013. Smudging their resumé last season were losses to the Buccaneers (2-14) and Jets (4-12) .

The 2015 Steelers were supposed to be different, especially after last week’s spirited comeback win over the Broncos.

But it happened again.

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Steelers 34, Broncos 27: Comeback victory shows how far Steelers have come from last season

The Pittsburgh Steelers are two wins away from their second straight perfect December.

So does this mean it’s 2014 all over again?

Not exactly.

That would be short-changing the 2015 Steelers, who overcame a 17-point deficit to defeat the Denver Broncos 34-27 Sunday at Heinz Field.

This year’s Steelers have shown a mental toughness that was missing last season, even before staging the franchise’s biggest comeback since rallying from 24-7 to beat the Browns 36-33 in a 2002 AFC wild-card game.

After winning three in a row highlighted by Ben Roethlisberger’s stratospheric six touchdown passes in back-to-back games, the 2014 Steelers were punched in the mouth and lost to a 4-12 Jets team.

Then after closing the season with four straight wins, the Steelers buckled when Le’Veon Bell was injured in the regular-season finale and went one-and-done in the playoffs.

This year’s Steelers (9-5) have dealt better with adversity. Despite only having Bell for five and a half games and Roethlisberger for 10 games, they’re in the playoffs if they can finish the season with wins at Baltimore and Cleveland.

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Steelers move a step closer to playoffs, but AFC North title still unlikely

Cincinnati sure is nice this time of year.

For the Pittsburgh Steelers, anyway.

The Steelers’ 33-20 win over the Bengals Sunday was their 13th in their last 15 games at Cincinnati, including playoffs, and their 21st out of their last 26 going back to 1991.

Ben Roethlisberger improved to 11-2 at Paul Brown Stadium.

Steelers wins at Cincinnati have become one of those warm, fuzzy late-autumn experiences, like the smell of a burning fireplace or the taste of pumpkin spice.

In most years, these Steelers wins by the Ohio River are one of the building blocks of an AFC North title.

Could it possibly be again this year?

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Steelers rout Colts, face familiar road map to playoffs

In the NFL, there are certain phrases that you want to share a sentence with in December.

You want to be a team that “nobody wants to play” and you want to be “hot at the right time.”

The Pittsburgh Steelers are at least bearing the first of these labels after Sunday night’s 45-10 thrashing of the Indianapolis Colts.

The Steelers (7-5) have generated at least 450 yards of offense in four straight games, tying an NFL record. They’ve scored 30 or more points in four straight games for the first time in franchise history, and believe it or not they’re the seventh-stingiest defense in the league with 240 points allowed. Sunday’s 35-point margin of victory is the Steelers’ largest in any game since they beat the Kansas City Chiefs 45-7 in 2006, and they did this to a team that leads its division.

This was the Steelers’ most complete effort of the season on both sides of the ball. Ben Roethlisberger threw four touchdown passes, two to Antonio Brown and one each to Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. He also ended a streak of five straight games with an interception and for the second time this season he wasn’t sacked. That’s part of the reason he played just his fourth complete game of the year.

The Steelers allowed 240 yards on defense, their best showing of the year, on a night when Brandon Boykin was actually allowed to play. The former Eagles cornerback who had been languishing on the bench intercepted a pass and broke up two more.

Another rare sight was perfect clock management by Mike Tomlin at the end of the first half. Roethlisberger threw a touchdown pass to Wheaton with 10 seconds left to give the Steelers a 21-10 lead at the break.

If the Steelers continue to check all these boxes, no team would look forward to facing them in the playoffs.

Can we really say they’re “hot” at the right time, however? The euphoria over Sunday’s win doesn’t erase the 39 points the Seahawks hung on them last week.

To make the playoffs, the Steelers will have to get hot. For the third time in the last four years, they’re 7-5 and can make the playoffs if they win their last four games. That’s how they got into the playoffs last year and in 2005 when they won Super Bowl XL.

Former Steelers coach Bill Cowher famously likened their task in 2005 to Christopher Columbus’ voyage, and the Steelers sailed a route no one else had by becoming the first team to win the Super Bowl as the No. 6 seed.

This year, the seas will be a lot rougher.

In the next two weeks the Steelers face a pair of 10-2 teams. They go to Cincinnati next week and host Denver in Week 15. They finish the season at Baltimore and at Cleveland, two hapless rivals that would like nothing more than to derail the Steelers’ playoff train.

When they ran the table in the final four games of 2005 and 2014, the Steelers had two games at home and two on the road. This year, three of their last four are on the road. They’ve beaten the Rams and Chargers on the road this season but lost to the Patriots, Chiefs and Seahawks, all of whom would be in the playoffs if the season ended after 12 weeks.

The Steelers can forget about winning the AFC North. But next Sunday’s game at Cincinnati is their last chance to prove that they can beat a quality opponent on the road.

If the Steelers can do in Cincinnati what they did Sunday, then teams would have a real reason to fear them in the playoffs.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

 

Defense disappoints in Steelers loss to Seahawks

Sure, if the Steelers had beaten the Seahawks Sunday at Seattle, it would have been hailed as a signature win.

The narrative would have gone something like “Watch out Patriots, Broncos and Bengals. Here come the Steelers.”

Instead, the Steelers lost 39-30 and the weaknesses that could keep them out of the playoffs were exposed once again.

The Steelers took part in a memorable duel with the two-time NFC champions in a stadium where no AFC team has won since 2011, but there’s no “nice try” for that. They lost a game they had a chance to win.

No one is going to stop the presses by saying that the Steelers’ secondary isn’t very good. But boy was it horrible on Sunday.

The Steelers were burned by a lot of receivers that shouldn’t scare anyone.

Let’s just say that Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse aren’t often mentioned as fantasy starts.

Yet Baldwin rang up 145 receiving yards and three touchdowns, both career highs.

Kearse, who’s caught one touchdown pass in each of the last two years, caught a career-high two against the Steelers.

Those five touchdown passes, and 345 passing yards, are a regular-season personal best for Russell Wilson. For the second straight game the Steelers allowed a quarterback to surpass his career high in passing yards.

Jimmy Graham accounted for 75 of those yards on four catches before suffering a season-ending knee injury. On a day in which they couldn’t cover middling receivers, the Steelers weren’t going to suddenly figure out how to stop tight ends.

The Steelers’ bend-but-don’t-break defense bent and broke, and for the first time since the Steelers’ Week 7 loss at Kansas City it failed to produce any turnovers.

While the Steelers’ offense hasn’t had to carry the defense as much as most people thought it would, it needed to do that on Sunday. And turning the ball over four times is no way to bail out the defense.

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