Now break out the old playbooks

While the real position battles won't begin until the Steelers head for St. Vincent College in Latrobe in a little under two months, the team's volunteer coaching sessions now underway and mini-camp at the beginning of June will offer a sneak preview of several key battles.<br><br> Here is the fifth in a series previewing those:<br><br> <b> Today: Free Safety</b>

Brent Alexander will turn 32 a week before the opening of training camp in July and was never much of a speed demon to begin with.

But since head coach Bill Cowher took over the team in 1992, the Steelers have never had a fast, athletic player at free safety. Cowher likes his free safeties to be more thinkers than speedsters.

There's a reason.

As the man who is the last line of defense, the free safety has to know not only his responsibilities on a given play, he also has to know exactly which players are blitzing, who's dropping into coverage and where the quarterback might go if he correctly reads the play.

It's a lot of stuff to process in about three seconds.

Darren Perry, a sub-par athlete, could do it. Scott Shields, an excellent athlete, could not.

Alexander has many of the same attributes as Perry, and that's why he'll be the Steelers' starting free safety for at least one more season.

It was obvious last season that the Steelers' lack of speed at the safety position was the team's Achilles heal.

Adding rookie Troy Polamalu at strong safety in place of Lee Flowers will take care of the speed at one of those spots. And you know what? That will be enough.

For years, the Steelers hid Perry - now the team's safeties coach - in their defense. Of course, having excellent athletes like Rod Woodson at cornerback and Carnell Lake at strong safety helped that immensely.

But because the team knew it had two slow safeties - meaning very little deep help – last season, it was forced to play its corners deeper than normal to keep them from being beaten deep. That left a lot of the underneath stuff wide open. And the secondary didn't help matters by forgetting how to tackle on several occasions.

But adding an athlete of Polamalu's abilities to the mix changes things considerably.

Cowher and company can now break out the old playbooks they used when Perry wore the black and gold and allow the corners to play more press coverage.

And because Polamalu is a rookie and will need as much pre-snap help as possible, Alexander is an obvious choice to keep his starting job over second-year man Chris Hope, who could use another year of seasoning.

And with 11 interceptions in his three years as a starter in Pittsburgh, Alexander has shown enough playmaking ability to prove he deserves to keep the job – at least for one more season.

Dale Lolley

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