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Steelers to pay price with defensive backs

Chaz Palla | Tribune Review
The Steelers' Keenan Lewis during OTAs on the South Side on May 24, 2012.

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2013 Steelers' trouble spot: Secondary

2012 Starters: CB Ike Taylor (10th season), CB Keenan Lewis (4th season), S Troy Polamalu (10th season), S Ryan Clark (11th season)

2012 Backups: CB Cortez Allen (2nd season), S Will Allen (9th season)

Analysis: The Steelers led the NFL in pass defense, but it was an uncomfortable No. 1. Too many early-season games were sacrificed to late-game secondary breakdowns, and the four starters played together for only two games all season. Polamalu missed nine games with a torn calf and didn't look like himself until the final two games of the season, when Taylor (broken ankle) was out. Clark and Polamalu allowed a touchdown between them all season, but backup Ryan Mundy allowed three in the first four games. Lewis shook off a rough start to have a strong season but never made an interception.

Most likely departure: Lewis, if he elects to go into free agency.

Possible early-round draft picks: CB Dee Milliner, Alabama; CB Logan Ryan, Rutgers; S Bacarri Rambo, Georgia; CB Jordan Poyer, Oregon State; CB Johnthan Banks, Mississippi State

Possible free agents: CB Brent Grimes, Falcons; CB Tracy Porter, Broncos; CB Derek Cox, Jaguars

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Alan Robinson
Friday, Jan. 11, 2013, 11:58 p.m.
 

Get out the checkbook, Dan Rooney.

The Steelers chose not to give cornerback Keenan Lewis a multiyear contract as a restricted free agent last year, in part, because he wasn't yet a starter. Lewis, in turn, might have hesitated to sign such a deal if it didn't pay him at a starter's level.

Now some team is going to pay the efficient Lewis a lot more than the $1.26 million he made in 2012 — be it the Steelers or one that grabs him as a free agent.

Where Lewis goes sets the course for the 2013 Steelers' secondary, one that hopes to be more stable and theft-prone but as statistically proficient as the NFL's top-ranked unit was this season.

That's where the hard decisions begin.

Lewis stabilized what had been a troublesome position for years, the cornerback spot opposite Ike Taylor that once alternated between Bryant McFadden and William Gay, and it's likely the Steelers would prefer to keep him more than any of the other 17 unrestricted free agents.

“I want everybody back, especially Keenan,” safety Ryan Clark said. “His play was a big reason why we finished No. 1 in yards. When we have him, it makes it a lot better.”

But it would cost $10.66 million to franchise him — one route to retaining him without giving him a multiyear deal — and that's unlikely given the Steelers are well over the salary cap.

If Lewis signs elsewhere, Cortez Allen becomes the next man up. He helped create five turnovers in the final two games and would start if Lewis leaves.

But that would significantly weaken a position of strength, nickel back, given that Allen graded out the highest of any Steelers defensive back in Pro Football Focus' play-by-play analysis. Ranked No. 17 league-wide, Allen (563 snaps) gave up only one touchdown but played the second-fewest snaps of any cornerback in the top 20.

With numerous personnel decisions to make given the seven players 30 or older on defense, the Steelers could decide it is more cost-effective to make Allen a starter. Then, they could seek out an affordable nickel back — if they think Curtis Brown isn't ready — through free agency or the draft.

Brown got most of his playing time late in the season, giving up 11 completions and a touchdown while being targeted 15 times.

The Steelers also must decide if this is the year they commit a high-round draft pick to safety, given that Ryan Clark — coming off possibly his best season — will be 34 next season and Troy Polamalu will be 32.

The concern about Polamalu isn't as much his age as his reliability; he missed much of the 2009 and '12 seasons to injury.

“Maybe I look too far ahead, but think what it could look like with both of us healthy and these young guys playing football and Ike out there,” Clark said. “It could be special.”

So for the Steelers, it's pay now or pay later. Even if the Steelers don't give Lewis a seven-figure multiyear deal, they're going to have to replace Taylor, 33; Clark and Polamalu not far down the road.

“It will be an interesting offseason,” Polamalu said.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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