Steelers hope group of low-budget cornerbacks can deliver
The Denver Broncos signed Aqib Talib to a $57 million contract. The Patriots locked up Darrelle Revis with a deal worth $12 million for this season.
The Steelers' response to these big-ticket contracts given to elite cornerbacks whose job it is to shut down all those high-salaried quarterbacks? They cut No. 1 cornerback Ike Taylor's salary by $4.25 million to $2.75 million.
While the Cleveland Browns are paying ace cornerback Joe Haden nearly $6.7 million this season, the Steelers will pay out a bargain basement $5.68 million combined to their top three cornerbacks: Taylor, Cortez Allen and William Gay.
As they get ready for a season in which the NFL never has valued the passing game more, the Steelers are hoping they'll get a whole lot more than what they're paying for.
Their entire season could be riding on it.
A year ago, NFL teams threw for 120,633 yards, about 16,400 yards more than they did 10 years ago. That's like giving every team in the league an extra 500-yard passing game since the year Ben Roethlisberger broke into the league.
“Football is now a space game,” NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said. “It's not like there's eight in the box anymore. It's played on the perimeter with fast guys either to score on offense or to stop teams from scoring on defense.”
Taylor, Allen and Gay are fast, but they also were inconsistent last season, when the Steelers slipped from No. 1 in the league in passing yards allowed in 2012 to No. 9.
In response, the Steelers added safety Mike Mitchell and linebacker Arthur Moats, but they mostly left their cornerbacks alone except for drafting Shaq Richardson in the fifth round.
By doing so, they're taking a major gamble that what they've already got — a unit that couldn't defend against the passing games of the Patriots and the Lions a year ago — will be adequate during a time when the passing game never has been more important.
Taylor was the only cornerback to allow more than 1,000 yards — 1,043 to be precise — in coverage last season based on Pro Football Focus' analysis. Overall, Taylor was No. 68 (among 81), Allen was No. 50 and Gay was No. 37 in pass coverage, and the Steelers' unit ranked 14th.
“Nobody can keep a game interesting like Ike Taylor can,” NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes said.
Gay was tied for the league lead in slot receiver coverage by Pro Football Focus, and, despite starting 11 games last season, he's returned to that role during training camp, with Taylor and Allen lining up in the base defense.
“I love our players,” said Allen, who is hoping to be a full-time starter following an injury-interrupted 2012 in which he was limited to eight starts. “I think it's a great group.”
For much of his 12-season career, Taylor has been the Steelers' most reliable pass defender, often following an opponent's best receiver to either side of the field. But after struggling against receivers such as Detroit's Calvin Johnson during the first half last season, he began lining up almost exclusively on the left side and played much better.
“One thing I like about this business is it's black and white. There's no gray area,” Taylor said. “You get the job done or you don't, and if you don't, you know the consequences. There's a reward.”
For Taylor and Allen that could be a new contract — though not necessarily in Pittsburgh.
Both are signed only through this season, and if the Steelers don't extend Allen's deal before the start of the season, they risk losing him to free agency like they did with Keenan Lewis after the 2012 season.
“But that's not my concern,” Allen said. “Football is my concern.”
The Steelers must be hoping their mostly untouched group of cornerbacks doesn't derail what multiple players are predicting will be a turnaround season.