Secondary primary for Steelers in NFL Draft

Ralph N. Paulk
| Wednesday, April 25, 2012, 12:30 a.m.

In the weeks leading to the NFL Draft, it's difficult to imagine coach Mike Tomlin didn't relive the final seconds of the Steelers' stunning 29-23 overtime defeat in the opening round of AFC playoffs in Denver.

If it wasn't safety Ryan Mundy biting on a Tim Tebow play fake, it was Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas slapping aside cornerback Ike Taylor as he sprints toward the end zone for the game-winning 80-yard touchdown.

On Monday, Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert made it clear the Steelers are prepared to address their shortcomings in the secondary. While offensive line might be a position of need, last year's top-ranked pass defense needs a playmaker, considering the Steelers had only 11 interceptions.

“Need is not a good word,” Colbert said.

Need might be an ugly word for Colbert, but the Steelers' pass coverage breakdowns in big games may necessitate taking the best available defensive back in the first round Thursday. If there's any doubt, Tomlin only needs to reflect on the Mile High debacle — or Baltimore's Torrey Smith splitting cornerback William Gay and safety Ryan Clark for a game-clinching 27-yard scoring reception to cap a 92-yard drive with eight seconds left for a 23-20 win at Heinz Field in November.

Taylor, for the most part, was consistent in 2011. Clark led the Steelers with 100 tackles, and safety Troy Polamalu had 91 tackles and a team-high two interceptions.

But last year's third- and fourth-round picks, cornerbacks Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen, were slowed by injuries. Keenan Lewis was steady but unspectacular.

“What's going on with our current team won't influence what we do in the draft,” Colbert said. “We're going to look at this with the potential to add more players to the mix.”

Brown and Allen could have bigger roles with the release of veteran Bryant McFadden and the departure of Gay via free agency.

“There's a possibility that we could add some competition there but we are excited about the prospects of these young men — Brown and Allen,” Tomlin said. “We drafted them a year ago with the potential of these things in mind. They've been a part of our program and have been given the opportunity to contribute in some ways, on special teams and even in some sub-package defense for Cortez.”

With the 24th overall pick, the Steelers probably won't have a chance at the top defensive back prospects — cornerbacks Morris Clairborne of LSU and Dre Kirkpatrick of Alabama, and safety Mark Barron of Alabama.

Colbert said the talent pool is deep with cornerbacks. He isn't nearly as confident in finding safeties, particularly late in the draft.

But if the Steelers are left without an offensive lineman worthy of a first-round pick, several defensive backs could be available — including cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore of South Carolina and Jayron Hosley of Virginia Tech, and safety Harrison Smith of Notre Dame.

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