Team wants to add to secondary’s résumé

July 30, 2013
Strong safety Troy Polamalu is looking to return to form and again lead the Steelers secondary this season. - Associated Press

LATROBE – Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake hasn’t put together the NFL’s top-rated pass defense the past two seasons with smoke and mirrors. It’s only seemed that way, particularly in 2012.

The Steelers used six different starting combinations in their secondary in 2012, yet still somehow managed to lead the NFL in fewest passing yards allowed for the second consecutive season.

Injuries cost starters Troy Polamalu nine games and Ike Taylor four, while safety Ryan Clark was unable to play in Denver as a safety precaution due to carrying the sickle cell trait.

In fact, only cornerback Keenan Lewis made all 16 starts in 2012 in the secondary, and he is now a member of the Saints after signing with New Orleans as a free agent in the offseason.

“A lot of young guys got experience last year due to injuries,” said Taylor. “A lot of guys who probably thought they weren’t going to play wound up playing a lot.”

With third-year pro Cortez Allen ready to step into the starting lineup after being the nickel corner in 2012, the Steelers feel they have a ready-made replacement for Lewis.

Pittsburgh’s main goal for 2013?

Finding a way to not only lead the league in pass defense again while also generating more turnovers.

Despite being the top pass defense in the NFL the past two years, the Steelers have intercepted just 21 passes over that span. That combined total is three fewer than Chicago’s league-high 24 interceptions in 2012.

Even more troubling is the fact that linebacker Lawrence Timmons had a team-best three interceptions, while LaMarr Woodley added one. Pittsburgh’s defensive backs had just six.

“I’ve always told my guys, if we catch the ones that are thrown to you, we’d have done really well,” said Lake, who is entering his third season as the Steelers defensive backs coach. “We’ve just got to catch them. We had our opportunities.”

Lake knows quite a bit about the subject. In 10 seasons with the Steelers, he intercepted 16 passes, not a big total to be sure, but more than every current Pittsburgh defensive back not named Polamalu.

And to help out a little more with the takeaways this season, the Steelers brought in Lake’s former teammate and NFL Hall of Fame defensive back Rod Woodson as a training camp coaching intern.

Woodson had 71 interceptions in his 17-year NFL career, 10 of which he spent with the Steelers.

“I think any time you get a guy with Rod’s success to come out and help out in training camp, it’s great,” Lake said. “They get to hear it from me. But with Rod back, he can bring his game and reinforce what I’ve been saying to these guys. It always helps.”

The players certainly listen when Woodson talks.

“We have Rod Woodson in camp this year and we went to him because he caught a lot of interceptions,” said corner William Gay, who was re-signed after playing 2012 in Arizona to help ease the loss of Lewis. “I was like, ‘What do we need to do?’ It doesn’t make any sense for us to be the top defense and not get any turnovers. He was like, ‘It’s simple. Just catch the ones that come to you. If you catch those four or five that come right to you, you’ll be in the top of the category in turnovers, just by catching the ones you’re supposed to catch.’

“If everybody does that, we’ll have 20-plus interceptions.”

Lake is also hopeful that a full season from Polamalu, who hasn’t been completely healthy since winning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 2010, will help pump up the turnover total.

“That would help a lot. I’m sure he’s going to snag one or two interceptions himself,” said Lake of Polamalu, who has 30 career interceptions, more than the rest of the Steelers’ defensive backs combined.

Allen also showed some ball-hawking ability when moved from covering the slot to left cornerback late in the season when Taylor missed the final four games with a broken bone in his lower leg. Allen intercepted two passes, forced three fumbles and recovered another in the final two games.

“I think I just showed the capability to make plays,” said Allen, who is expected to return to practice today after sitting out the past two practices with a sore knee. “I think I gave them a little more confidence in me, in what I can do.”

At the end of the day, the Steelers will be happy with however many turnovers they can produce in the secondary, so long as the pass defense continues to be solid.

“They talk about big plays. Everything you do, whether you’re a reporter or just trying to join the swim team, you’re trying to be No. 1,” said Taylor. “We’ve been No. 1 for the past two years. Regardless of what people say, we’re striving for turnovers. We know turnovers are key. It will be big for us. But the main thing, our goal for the secondary is to be No. 1 in the league. You’ve got 32 other teams trying to do that. That’s what we strive for.”

Odds and end zones

With Allen having missed the last two days of practice, along with corners DeMarcus Van Dyke (hamstring) and Terry Hawthorne (knee), the Steelers signed corner Ryan Steed (Furman) and tight end John Rabe (Minnesota) Tuesday. Rabe was added because tight ends Heath Miller and David Johnson are both on the PUP list. … The Steelers released defensive tackle Omar Hunter and corner Nigel Malone. … After taking Tuesday off, the Steelers will resume practice today at Saint Vincent College. The 3 p.m. session is open to the public.

Dale Lolley has been with the Observer-Reporter since 1993 after previously working at WJAC-TV and the Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown, and The Derrick in Oil City. A native of Fryburg, Pa., he is a graduate of North Clarion High School and the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, where he earned a degree in journalism. He has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers since joining the Observer-Reporter in 1993, and also serves as the outdoors editor. He also is a radio host for Pittsburgh’s ESPN 970-AM, and serves as administrative adviser for the Red & Black, Washington & Jefferson College’s student newspaper.

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