Steelers attempting to turn the corner
By John Harris
Friday, August 7, 2009
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau won't say so, and cornerback Ike Taylor will not admit it, but it's apparent things are different in the Steelers' secondary during training camp.
More zone defense is being played and the number of big pass plays allowed is higher than you would expect from the Steelers.
Of course, it is only the first week of camp. The Steelers play their first preseason game next week against the Arizona Cardinals at Heinz Field.
Bryant McFadden left as a free agent for Arizona, and veteran Deshea Townsend hasn't practiced much during the first week of training camp. Third-year cornerback William Gay is entering his first season as a fulltime starter, leaving Taylor as the only returning corner with more than a year of starting experience
Asked if trying to work rookie corners Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett into the rotation will determine if the Steelers begin the season playing less man coverage, LeBeau said it's too early to make that decision.
"We're saying let's see how it goes in the preseason," LeBeau said. "We haven't had any competition against an opposing team yet. Let's see how they do in that situation.
"We haven't had to play any younger guys, but we lost (McFadden). So we're looking for a corner. And it's going to be some younger guys, probably."
As part of the NFL's top-ranked defense in 2008, the Steelers' secondary, which played a good deal of man coverage featuring Taylor at right corner, yielded few long passes.
Since the start of camp, however, the offense has successfully attacked the secondary's primarily zone coverage with long passes against left corner Gay's side — also manned by Lewis, Burnett and veteran newcomer Keiwan Ratliff.
In Thursday's practice, rookie Mike Wallace beat Lewis on a bomb during a two-minute drill. However, Dennis Dixon's pass was underthrown, and Lewis was flagged for pass interference.
Despite that play and others, LeBeau said Burnett and Lewis are on schedule in their development.
"We've got quality young guys who are both having very good training camps so far," LeBeau said. "We had the offseason sessions, and they have applied themselves. We expect them to catch up to us. They know exactly what's coming and when. So we don't deviate from (base defenses) too much."
Taylor, entering his fifth season as a starter, said LeBeau hasn't scaled back his play-calling because of the influx of youth.
"It depends on how coach LeBeau feels about his secondary. The young guys are getting their hands on a lot of balls," said Taylor, a Pro Bowl alternate last season. "You can tell how coach LeBeau feels by what he calls. So far, he's feeling pretty good."
Gay was unproven a year ago. He became a starter when McFadden was injured and finished with 38 tackles, 11 pass defenses and one interception.
"I have no problems playing younger guys," LeBeau said. "Will Gay, we have a lot of confidence in him. He's played a lot of football and has played very well for us. We can do anything that we can do with any corner with Will Gay."
John Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org