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    Steelers Sunday Spotlight: The secondary ... zeroing in on safeties

    Steelers Sunday Spotlight: The secondary ... zeroing in on safeties

    February 24, 2013 12:02 am

    By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

    Those defensive backs invited to the combine workouts arrived in Indianapolis on Saturday, and team scouts, coaches and medical personnel will begin poking and probing them today.

    The Steelers will have a front-row seat and will pay close attention when they parade the safety candidates around the room.

    No team had stronger safeties than did the Steelers in 2011 when Troy Polamalu made his annual trip to the Pro Bowl following that season and Ryan Clark joined him for the first time.

    A year later, neither made it to the all-star game, and this year Polamalu will be 32 years old and Clark 34. It's time for the Steelers to find their replacements.

    Clark enters the final season of his contract and while he played at a Pro Bowl level last season, he's not getting any younger. Polamalu, on the other hand, is not getting any healthier. He missed nine games with a calf injury last season and has missed 22 over the past four seasons with injuries.

    Clark has improved annually. He calls the signals in the secondary and has become one of their true bargain free-agent finds, having joined them in 2006 to replace Chris Hope, who left as a free agent to sign with Tennessee. Unlike Polamalu, he has been an ironman. The only games Clark has missed over the past four seasons were those played in Denver for precautionary health reasons related to his previous near-fatal physical reaction playing there because of his sickle cell trait.

    The Steelers' top backups at safety, veterans Will Allen and Ryan Mundy, are both unrestricted free agents. Mundy took over for an injured Polamalu in the second and third games last season, but the coaches switched to Allen after that because they were not satisfied with Mundy's play. Allen started the next seven games in which Polamalu did not play. Allen will be 31 and Mundy is 28.

    They have two young safeties who have potential but would not be considered an heir apparent at this point.

    Robert Golden made the team as an undrafted rookie last season. Damon Cromartie-Smith spent most of the past two seasons on the Steelers practice squad, elevated to the roster for four games in 2011 and two games in 2012.

    Kenny Vaccaro of Texas appears to be the only prospect as a first round choice two months before they actually start drafting. However, there should be decent safeties available in the second and third rounds.

    Cornerback had been the weakest position for the Steelers through the years with Ike Taylor the lone exception. They ran through a gaggle of left cornerbacks until Keenan Lewis finally surfaced in his fourth season to give them their best play on that side in years. Lewis led the league, according to, with 16 passes broken up. Coupled with the emergence of Cortez Allen as a strong nickel back, the cornerback position was in good hands with those three.

    Now Lewis is an unrestricted free agent and if the Steelers do not re-sign him, Allen will take over at left cornerback and Curtis Brown will move up a notch. With Taylor out for the final four games with an ankle injury, the Steelers generally went with Allen at right cornerback with Brown moving there and Allen moving to the slot in the nickel defense.

    DeMarcus Van Dyke, claimed off waivers by the Steelers from Oakland to start the season, and Josh Victorian are two young cornerbacks who will add depth and perhaps push Brown for his No. 3 spot. They also re-signed veteran Justin King.

    The draft is top-heavy with cornerbacks with as many as four projected to go in the first round and perhaps nine in the first two rounds.

    The secondary was a big reason the Steelers had the NFL's No. 1 pass defense, allowing just 185.2 yards passing per game. That was more impressive because both sacks and quarterback pressures were down. The secondary needs to improve its play-making because they managed only six of the team's 10 interceptions with Clark and Cortez Allen getting two apiece. As a team, the Steelers ranked 27th in the NFL in percentage of passes intercepted.
    It is a secondary worthy of a championship team, provided Polamalu can stay healthy, and it will remain stronger if they are able to find a way to pay Lewis and keep him.

    Even if Lewis leaves, the Steelers will not be pressured to pick another cornerback high in the draft because of the depth they have developed at the position the past few years. Their primary need in the secondary is to develop the next Clark and/or Polamalu and they have the luxury of not force-feeding a rookie if they do draft one unless injuries become a problem again. Even Polamalu did not start as a rookie.

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    Steelers Should Seriously Consider Drafting Safety Vaccaro

    Feb 28th, 2013 by Craig Gottschalk

    The Steelers are staring down at the LB position for their top pick of the draft this year. At least, thatís what everyone expects. But, I believe that the Steelers should (and quite possibly are) look at drafting a safety first and foremost Ė specifically a player by the name of Kenny Vaccaro.

    Vaccaro is a safety out of Texas, and could be the future of the Steelers deep secondary. He is a very versatile player. He can defend both pass and run. He is quite physical and has good speed. He ran a disappointing 40 of 4.63 at the combine, but donít let that jade your feelings about Kenny. So Kenny has the intangibles at being a very good strong or free safety. Why should the Steelers be aggressive in drafting him?

    Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, and Carnell Lake.

    Those are the three reasons why. As we well know as Steeler fans that Dick LeBeauís defense is one of the most complicated schemes to grace the NFL. The learning curve is steep, and most defensemen donít have a shot at becoming a starter until at least their second or third year. Very few have been a starter from day one when they are drafted to the Steelers defense. Thereís no question that Vaccaro will have a huge advantage by learning the positions from two of the best safeties in the league in Polamalu and Clark. The icing on the cake is having someone like Carnell Lake as the secondary coach. With the quick rise and development of Cortez Allen and the (finally) solid play from Keenan Lewis, you canít deny that Lakeís positive impact on the corners and safeties.

    Clark is done in 2013 unless he gets an extension, which is highly possible. Troy is slated to play through 2014. However, his large hit on the salary cap and decline in health the last two seasons could put his future in jeopardy. He very well could become a cap casualty in 2014 instead of playing out his contract. The time is right and the iron is hot to strike a golden opportunity to draft someone who could be the next top safety in the league by drafting Vaccaro.

    Are there other pressing needs? Yes. Linebacker is certainly a huge need, especially if Harrison or Woodley are released to make cap room. But, thereís really no one there to act as Ďthe teacherí once a rookie linebacker is drafted. That person may take a couple to three years before they are ready Ė as has been the case with most of the Steelers linebackers. The team could see faster and more positive returns with a guy like Vaccaro.

    I wholly endorse that kind of pick, and hope the Steelers also see the ripe opportunity.



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