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Turning the Corner

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No football team is perfect; not this year’s Super Bowl champions, or last year’s champions, or even the “perfect” ’72 Dolphins who ended their season without a loss. And certainly not the Steelers team that defied the odds—and the injury-sheet—in an improbable run to the sport’s most important game last year.

There are more than a few problem areas on the current roster, including an aging defensive line and an offensive starting five that is perennially among the team’s top-three needs on draft day.

This year, however, the Pittsburgh Steelers need to put fortifying the trenches on the back-burner and do something they haven’t done since 1997: draft a cornerback in the first round.

Pittsburgh lost five games last season, including the Super Bowl. Losses against Baltimore and New York were hard-fought, coin-flip affairs where either team had a shot at walking off the field with a victory. But then there were the losses against New Orleans and New England, as well as the toughest mark against Green Bay – losses that exposed a major flaw in a team and a defense that dominated most opponents.

The Steelers need a strong second option at cornerback.

Ike Taylor has firmly cemented himself as the lead dog at the position, even with his cement-like hands on game day. Bryant McFadden was well on his way to becoming the second member of the duo before departing to Pittsburgh-West over in Arizona for one disappointing season. McFadden returned to the team last season with a slew of bad habits and was more of a liability than in his 2008 season.

William Gay was supposed to be the heir-apparent after an impressive showing as the nickel corner in 2008. Unfortunately, Gay struggled in a starting role and may have lost confidence in his game.

Of course, this was all moot as, year after year, the combination of Dick LeBeau and Troy Polamalu covered the holes. LeBeau’s blitz schemes brought an immense level of pressure down on opposing offenses, rushing quarterbacks before they could exploit any flaws. Polamalu’s own abilities—abilities which made him the league’s Defensive Player of the Year—forced the offense to shift its focus on to him and away from anyone else in the secondary.

But injuries, including a partially-torn Achilles tendon, limited Polamalu’s range in the second half of the regular season and the entire postseason, and the league’s top quarterbacks were able to match LeBeau’s schemes with spread looks and smart play.

It’s not a flaw that any team can exploit – you won’t see the Cleveland Browns lighting up the Steelers defense any time soon. But it is a flaw that most playoff teams can, and will, take advantage of.

Which means it’s high time for the Steelers to fix that problem. On draft day, Kevin Colbert needs to look down at the card he’ll hand Roger Goodell to announce the 31st pick and write “cornerback.”

The top two cornerback prospects, Patrick Peterson and Prince Amukamara, will be off the board long before the Steelers are on the clock and Colorado CB Jimmy Smith may soon be out of reach as well. However, it’s very likely that Miami’s Brandon Harris, who received praise at the combine from Deion Sanders, will be available at that point in the draft.

If he is, or if one of the other three players slides, the Steelers brass should pull the trigger and plug that hole in the defensive backfield.

Kenneth Torgent is the Steelers beat writer for the Pittsburgh Sports Report.

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