Cornerback Will Be The Hardest Cut

The picture at cornerback didn't clear up any in the Steelers' third preseason game. It may have even become fuzzier – if that was possible.

* Mike Tomlin has never kept more than six cornerbacks as coach of the Steelers, but finding one to cut from a competitive group of seven is going to be difficult, particularly after Saturday night's 34-16 win over the Atlanta Falcons.

Try it yourself:

* Ike Taylor, out with a broken thumb, is the ace and will be available soon, probably for the opener.

* Bryant McFadden, the other starter, missed Saturday's game with a hamstring injury and has been the object of media rumors that he will be released. But Tomlin said after Saturday's game that McFadden is still his starter on the left side. He returned to practice last week, but didn't suit up Saturday.

* William Gay is the whipping boy of fan nation. But Gay is the only experienced inside corner among the group, and that means a lot to Dick LeBeau. Gay was moved inside every time another corner entered on passing downs Saturday.

* Curtis Brown is the third-round pick and has the best raw cover skills of the bunch. The key word is raw, so he'll take a "redshirt" this season; probably see time inside at some point.

* Cortez Allen is the fourth-round pick who's been injured most of camp. He'll also be given a redshirt because he's too tall and has too much raw talent, scouts feel, to clear waivers and return to the practice squad. Too many CB-hungry clubs out there.

* Keenan Lewis made a difficult interception in the second preseason game and then Saturday night held his own against Roddy White, most noticeably in the man-to-man island from the 5. Lewis nearly came down with a pick in the end zone on the play (the play he strained his knee). As for the previous play, in which Lewis seemingly left White all alone to get to the 5 in the first place, that was Gay's fault. Gay admitted it after the game. (He was asked about it because Lewis pointed at him after the tackle.)

* Crezdon Butler also missed most of camp with an injury, but returned last night and ran an interception 95 yards for a touchdown. He was one of last year's camp phenoms and would logically be back in favor today.

Some will even throw Donovan Warren into the mix. He's a street free agent who's displayed serviceable zone skills with the zone-happy Steelers. Warren most likely will fall victim to a numbers game, even if the Steelers keep seven corners for the first time in at least 10 years.

Of course, these guys aren't Night Train Lane and The Shutdown Kids. They did get picked apart pretty good by Matt Ryan. But in the midst of Ryan's 220-yard first half Saturday, a writer from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, turned (in the midst of Ben Roethlisberger's 214-yard half) and said, "The Falcons would take these Steelers' corners in a heartbeat. Every one of 'em."

Ryan was working Saturday against the Nos. 6 and 7 corners on the above list much the same way he worked against the Nos. 1 and 2 in last season's opener. He picked them all apart systematically with outs and curls, but lost both times.

Butler, for one, came back from the abyss Saturday night. His 95-yard interception return was replete with a noticeable burst of speed.

"I like a healthy Crez," Taylor said after the game. "We've been saying that this camp. (When) Crez stay(s) healthy, he's a gamer. He make(s) plays. He make(s) plays all the time. All the time."

Certainly, the Steelers don't want to give up on Butler now.

Does he know anything?

"I have no idea what they're thinking," said Butler. "I'm just going to do any and everything to stay on this team."

That vow's shared by six or seven other corners in Pittsburgh.

"They're making plays," said Taylor. "I'm glad I don't have to make the decisions."

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