Steelers Hunting Press-Man CBs

If the Steelers strike out today with Dre Kirkpatrick, here are three fast and physical "No. 1s" available in the first round of the draft.

When questioned about his defensive game plan against the New England Patriots, Mike Tomlin said "We stand by what we did in the game. We just didn't do it well enough."

That pretty much set the fan base on fire. They watched Tom Brady pick the Pittsburgh Steelers' zone coverages apart and they wanted at least an admission of guilt, if not a hanging.

Two days later, Tomlin was asked again about the scheme.

"It depends on what specific plays you are talking about," Tomlin said of a secondary that was scorched in man coverage, too.

But why so conservative against Brady?

"You know," Tomlin said, "I base our matchups on what our people are capable of doing and doing well."

That's as close as Tomlin came to saying that he didn't have the required press-man corners for the job. But he appears intent on doing something about it.

After putting the low tender on zone corner Ross Cockrell, the Steelers went on the prowl for press-man cornerbacks in free agency. According to NFL Network, their primary target is Cincinnati's Dre Kirkpatrick.

The reporter from the outlet updated the report Wednesday by saying the Steelers were close to signing Kirkpatrick, a 6-2, 190-pound 27-year-old.

But how many of you expect the Steelers to complete this signing when free agency officially begins today at 4 p.m.?

None of you? 

Count me in on that. I don't expect it to happen, either. The Steelers don't have as much spending money as the Bengals and they don't have the same desperation. 

The Bengals -- albeit infamous tightwads -- are in danger of losing their other starting cornerback, Pacman Jones, because he's getting old and becoming an embarrassment.

If Kirkpatrick does indeed turn down the Steelers, they may have to turn to the first round of this year's draft in search of a "No. 1" that one team source told me they want opposite what's presumably a No. 1B, Artie Burns.

This draft crop's a rich one. It may have as many as nine or 10 cornerbacks who in any other year would be regarded as first-rounders. And there are three who fit the precise Steelers requirements of a first-rounder right now:

A.) The ability to play press man; 

B.) The ability to cover slot receivers as an inside rookie between Burns and Cockrell; 

C.) The physicality and blitz skills the Steelers like inside in their nickel;

D.) The ability to become that "No. 1" outside corner some day, whether it be sooner or later.

These are my three potential first-round fits:

Marlon Humphrey, Alabama (6-0.2, 197, 32 1/4 arms, 4.41 40, 10 reps, 10-5 broad jump, 6.75 3-cone) 

If you want to watch a physical press-man corner, watch Humphrey against Washington speedster John Ross. 

Led by Humphrey, the Crimson Tide beat the star receiver to a pulp in the NCAA semifinal game.

"We did, a little bit, but he definitely was a great player," Humphrey humbly said at the Combine. 

Humphrey did call Ross "definitely the toughest receiver that I've guarded in my career," but Humphrey didn't get beat deep by Ross, who timed at 4.22 in Indianapolis.

Humphrey is the son of former NFL star Bobby Humphrey, a running back who started his NFL career with a pair of 1,000-yard seasons and ended it in disgrace amid reports of drugs and alcohol. But he used what he learned to teach his children what not to do.

"You hit it spot on," said the younger Humphrey from the Combine podium. "I've seen the big picture now why he was so hard on me for doing things: 'don't do this, don't do that.' He didn't want to see me make the same mistakes he made throughout this process and as you get into the NFL."

His mother Barbara, the 400-meter recordholder at UAB, added to Bobby's athletic gene pool and coached him into a young track star. So he has confidence -- especially after playing against Ross -- in his speed. 

"I think I can run with any guy," Humphrey said.

His best attribute?

"I pride myself on being physical," Humphrey said. "Oftentimes, when you run track, you hear the term 'He's a track guy.' I feel I'm a football player who just ran track. I would hear that from my high school coaches, just joking around. I tried to be as physical as I could be, because I think being physical is a choice. You have to be man enough to hit somebody. Corners don't like to tackle. It's sad. But for me I enjoy tackling and pride myself in it."

And that combination of speed and toughness make Humphrey a longshot to fall all the way to pick 30. But there are others.

Chidobe Awuzie, Colorado (5-11.7, 202, 30 1/2 arms, 4.43 40, 16 reps, 39 1/2 vertical at pro day, 11-0 broad, 6.81 3-cone, 4.14 shuttle)

Awuzie (Ah-wooz-yeh) went up against Ross a week before the Washington receiver caught 5 passes for 28 yards against Alabama. Against Colorado, and primarily Awuzie, Ross caught 4 passes for 51 yards, including a 19-yarder to beat Awuzie for the only touchdown he allowed all season. It was actually a fluke play, a high pass seemingly headed out of bounds. for which Awuzie rushed to the line of scrimmage to bat away, but missed.

"Yeah, the quarterback was trying to throw away the ball and John Ross just plucked it," Awuzie said. "I was kind of behind him. It wasn't my responsibility, but I was in the area, so, yeah."

Did Ross' speed strike fear into Awuzie at any point?

"Oh, never scared. I'm always confident," he said. "When I'm on the field, that's when I'm at home. I'm comfortable. I like to compete. I like to challenge people. If someone has a big name, that's better for me because I can show others that I'm that good, too."

It's not the speed so much that makes Awuzie a potential first-round pick and caused the Steelers to sit down with at the Combine. It's his physicality. During his career as a four-year starter, Awuzie played outside, inside, safety and nickel linebacker. He not only compiled 25 tackles-for-loss, but 9 sacks, 6 forced fumbles and a courageous story about finishing a practice with a lacerated kidney during his sophomore season.

"I'm just a ballplayer," he says with a shrug. "I have the mentality of 'see ball, get ball.' No matter where I'm lined up, whether it's sacking the quarterback: get the ball, I'm going to tackle him. If the ball's in the air, I'm going to tackle him on a play. And that's the way my mentality is."

How did he record nine sacks? Blitzing out of the slot? The corner?

"It was a combination of the two," he said. "I also had a lot of tackles for loss. My coach did a great job of film study and letting us anticipate routes and stuff like that. ... There's a lot of run defense involved, too, and sometimes I was lined up on a tackle in an outside linebacker stance. But like I said, I'm a big competitor, a huge competitor, and no matter who's in front of me, I'm going to try to win."

Fabian Moreau, UCLA (6-0.4, 206, 31 1/2 arms, 4.35 40, 38 VJ, 11-4 BJ, 6.94 3-cone, 4.12 shuttle)

This represents a chance for the Steelers to draft a 6-foot-plus cornerback with 4.3 speed. 

And Moreau can play. He's just flying under the radar.

"I feel that being injured last year, a lot of people forgot who I was," Moreau said in front of a tiny group of reporters at the Combine. "It's OK. I'm going through it. I'm showing up, proving who I am, competing with everybody."

The next day, Moreau ripped off the fourth-fastest 40 time of the entire Combine. It no doubt pleased Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake, a former UCLA linebacker who ran a 4.42 40 at his Combine weighing two pounds more than Moreau.

"Yeah it was cool meeting him here," Moreau said of their sitdown interview. "Bruins stick together, so it was cool chopping it up with him. Actually, I hung out with his son at UCLA before I met him, so it was pretty cool."

At 208 pounds, Lake was a bit of an enigma to NFL coaches coming out of college. Even his UCLA coaches recommended he play running back as a pro. But Lake was an opening-day rookie starter with the Steelers at strong safety and ended his Steelers career at cornerback. Moreau said he and Lake are similar in that regard.

"Exactly," Moreau said. "I played running back all throughout high school, got recruited as a running back. I ended up switching positions halfway through my freshman year. I never played corner before so it was a learning curve, but it was definitely one of the best decisions in my life."

What did Lake tell him?

"He said he made the same decision and he loved it," Moreau said. "I loved it too, so it was cool."

Lake was the 34th pick of the 1989 draft, and it appears that Moreau's tape and testing results are putting him right in that range. He also has a higher ceiling, considering his position change and the fact he missed most of his junior year with a Lis franc injury. 

"It was a tough injury," he said. "A lot of people told me I would never come back the same, probably wouldn't be as fast or explosive. It just made me more hungry, more determined, to come back even stronger."

The 4.35 is proof that he did.


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