For years, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense has excelled despite a lack of quality cornerbacks.
Part of it is how good Pittsburgh has been at stopping the run. Last season, the Steelers gave up just 62.8 rushing yards per contest, which was 27.2 yards per game less than the next best team at stopping the run, the Chicago Bears. And it’s not as if stopping the run is anything new for Pittsburgh, as the Steelers have finished no worse than third in rush defense every year since Dick LeBeau became defensive coordinator in 2004.
The fact that Pittsburgh can make teams one-dimensional lets its linebackers pin their ears back and attack the quarterback. Last season, the Steelers led the NFL in sacks with 48. And it’s that ability, the ability to pressure the quarterback, that takes the pressure off the Steelers cornerbacks.
However, the team’s deficiency in the secondary can be seen when it plays opponents that spread the Steelers out and throw short, quick passes to negate the pass rush.
The Patriots’ Tom Brady has excelled against the Steelers for years at this. In fact, the Steelers have only beaten Brady one time, during the regular season in 2004.
But now, other teams have started to mirror the Patriots’ game plan against the Steelers. Drew Brees used it to beat Pittsburgh in the regular season last year and then Aaron Rodgers spread out and disected the Pittsburgh defense to the Super Bowl in February.
For this reason, many mock drafts have the Steelers taking a cornerback in the first round of next Thursday’s NFL Draft, and I agree.
But instead of Aaron Williams of Texas or Brandon Harris of Miami, the two corners most mock drafts have Pittsburgh taking at pick No. 31, I believe the Steelers need to try and move up about 10 spots to get Jimmy Smith from Colorado.
On the First Draft podcast, both Todd McShay and Mel Kiper have said Smith is on par talent-wise with Prince Amukamara of Nebraska, who is projected to go in the top 15. However, Smith is projected to go lower, most commonly to Philadelphia at 23, due to character issues.
These issues seem to step from two minor-in-possession charges that Smith got while at Colorado. If those small run-ins with the law are the only thing, then it’s ridiculous that he’s slipping. This is 6-foot-2 cornerback who runs a 4.4 40-yard dash. He was voted first-team All-Big 12 last season despite having no interceptions. The reason is because quarterbacks in the pass-happy league rarely challenged him.
As for the Steelers, it’s generally believed they stay away from guys with character issues. However, the last time they moved up in the first round was in 2006 when they took Santonio Holmes, who seemed to slide due to “character issues.” And while character issues (or, as Holmes said likes to call it, “Wake and Bake”) eventually got him traded, that only happened after he was a Super Bowl MVP. So I’d say it worked out well.
Now, I don’t know how much the Steelers would have to give away to move to 21 (Kansas City) or 22 (Indianapolis), but it is something they definitely should explore. A shut down cornerback is Pittsburgh’s biggest need and it can likely get Smith without having to move into the top 20.
Plus, the last time Pittsburgh moved up to get a player from the secondary, it worked out pretty well. The year was 2003 and the Steelers went from 27th to 16th to pick Troy Polamalu. If Jimmy Smith could turn out to be 75 percent the player Polamalu is, it’d be worth it to move up.
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Written by Ryan Riordan