Grading The Players - The defensive backs

Following is a series grading the players and strength of position for the 2003-04 Steelers.<br><br> Today: <b>The defensive backs</b>

This unit got a lot of negative publicity during the 2002 season and for good reason. Not only did the defensive backs allow too many big plays, they also failed to make many big plays of their own.

How bad was it? Linebacker Joey Porter tied with free safety Brent Alexander for the team lead in interceptions with four. And while the team¹s overall interception total of 19 wasn¹t bad, when you consider opponents threw the ball 573 times against the Steelers - a 3.3 interception percentage - it isn¹t all that hot.

Chad Scott had perhaps his worst season since as a professional, picking off just two passes and defending 17 others. He finished the season tied for second on the team with 85 tackles, which should show exactly how much he was picked on last season. But Scott played better after a slow start, showing some hope for 2003.

Scott remains the Steelers most talented cornerback and should bounce back this season. His decision not to play in the team¹s playoff opener against Cleveland because of a broken hand was clearly a disappointment to head coach Bill Cowher and provides some insight into Scott¹s heart. Grade C

Dewayne Washington had an especially tough time in 2002. Like Scott, he was picked on by different teams and seemed to play the entire season shell-shocked.

But at least part of the reason for Scott and Washington¹s troubles stemmed from the fact they knew they had little help deep and could not afford to let a receiver get behind them. Instead, they allowed the ball to be caught in front of them. Washington did finish with 20 passes defensed, two forced fumbles, three interceptions and one fumble recovery. He¹s getting up in age, but he can still be effective. Grade C-

Brent Alexander returns for his ninth season in the league and the free safety may be about at the end of his run. Never the fastest player, Alexander relied more on guile to get by. But he no longer had what quickness he once had and will be in a battle to keep his position this year. Players with Alexander¹s smarts and football sense usually hold onto their jobs longer than they probably should. Grade D+

The Steelers traded up in the first round of the draft for the first time in team history to acquire Troy Polamalu. And no matter what Cowher says, Polamalu is expected to be the team¹s starting strong safety, replacing Lee Flowers. Polamalu will add some much-needed speed to the secondary, but hamstring and concussion problems continue to surface and bear watching. Grade Incomplete.

Deshea Townsend is actually one of the better third cornerbacks in the league. Even so, he¹s a third corner for a reason. He¹s pretty good in coverage, but his overall lack of size limits what the coaching staff can do with him. He¹s OK in the slot, but when he was put outside last season in the dime, he was mismatched against the bigger receivers out there. Grade C-

The knee injury suffered by backup safety Mike Logan in the playoff win over Cleveland may have contributed to the team¹s loss the following week at Tennessee as the Steelers were ill equipped to handle such an injury at that point. Logan¹s not starting material, but he is a playmaker as long as he¹s not overexposed. How well he comes back from his knee injury remains to be seen. Grade C-

The Steelers selected safety Chris Hope in the third round of last year¹s draft expecting him to be their strong safety when Flowers left. He never really settled into that role or any other, but was a decent special teams player. Hope will slide over to back up Alexander this season and could win the starting job with an outstanding training camp. However, unseating the wily veteran won¹t be easy, especially considering Polamalu will be on the other side and Cowher won¹t want to inexperienced guys out there. Then again, if the brass felt he was ready to play, they wouldn¹t have drafted Polamalu. Grade D

If Hank Poteat makes the team this season, it will be a miracle. The former third-round draft pick has never blossomed into anything close to what the Steelers felt he could be and he¹s run out of time. Grade F

Cornerback Chidi Iowuoma may have been the team¹s best special teams player last season and could earn a spot again on the roster this season. He¹s undersized, but he did start two games in a pinch for Detroit two years ago. Grade D

Rookie Ivan Taylor will be given every shot to beat out Poteat, while second-year safety Erik Totten would likely have to beat out Iowuoma for a special teams spot to have any hope of making the team.

Cornerbacks Rashad Faisen, Nashville Dyer, and safety Russell Stuvaints will try to earn their keep this season with one of the practice squad spots.

Final analysis: This unit is not as bad as it played last season and could rise to the middle of the pack in the league if Polamalu is as good as advertised. If the Steelers switch from a dime to a nickel defense to keep linebacker Kendrell Bell on the field, that will help the pass rush. The onus will then be on the corners and safeties to cover better. Overall position grade C-

Dale Lolley

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