Breaking down the Steelers/Defensive backs

The 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers intrigued us, made us smile and surprised even their harshest critics. <br><br> Ultimately, however, they disappointed.

But there is plenty to be excited about for next season. The core of the team is under contract for next season and the Steelers will open the 2005 season as one of the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

This will be a position-by-position look at the Steelers from 2004.

Today: The secondary

In 2003, the Steelers defense was good but not great. In 2004, it achieved a level of greatness.

Why?

While there was basically just one change on the team's front seven, the secondary underwent a total makeover. And the result was a much faster, if not quite as experienced secondary.

The extra speed showed up again and again. But the inexperience, well, that jumped up to bite the team in the butt in the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots.

But with a full season of starting under their belts, you can bet that strong safety Troy Polamalu and free safety Chris Hope won't make the same mistakes they did at times in 2004.

Polamalu was the linchpin to the team's defense in 2004 as defensive coordinator Dick lobe found a variety of ways to use the team's 2003 first-round draft pick. Polamalu not only led the team in interceptions, he also was among the team leaders in tackles as he was as effective playing the run as he was the pass. And as already stated, he's only going to get better.

Hope wasn't quite as strong in his first season as a starter, but was an upgrade over 2003 starter Brent Alexander, especially in run support. As a free safety, however, he needs to be more of a playmaker. Hope had just one interception, though he did cause a couple of fumbles with big hits.

But Hope is a restricted free agent and the Steelers will play a dangerous game if they offer him a low tender.

The backup safeties this season were supposed to be veterans Ainsley Battles and Mike Logan, as the Steelers made sure they had some players with experience to back up Polamalu and Hope. But both were injured early in the season and were placed on injured reserve.

Battles is an unrestricted free agent, but could return to the Steelers if the price is right. Logan, meanwhile, could be a salary cap casualty. He is scheduled to earn $715,000 next season, a lot of money for a player who have been injured the past couple of seasons.

When Battles and Logan were placed on IR, the team brought back Russell Stuvaints, who has spent the past couple of seasons bouncing on and off the team's roster, and signed veteran Tyrone Carter.

Stuvaints will be hard-pressed to make the team again in 2005, while Carter is an unrestricted free agent, though he too could be back if the price is right.

At cornerback, Deshea Townsend stepped in for his first full season as a starter and played well. He also showed some toughness, playing in the playoffs with three broken bones in his right hand. Considering Chad Scott would not do the same a couple of years earlier, Townsend earned some points with the coaching staff.

As for Scott, his days with the team are numbered if he refuses to take a pay cut. Scott is scheduled to earn $3.9 million in 2005. And though Scott played reasonably well early in the season, he took forever to recover from a midseason knee injury. The injuries and his reluctance to play at less than 100 percent have been a source of contention with the coaching staff.

Scott could still serve a purpose on the team, but it's likely that Ricardo Colclough will take over the starting job opposite Townsend next season. Colclough was the team's second round pick in the 2004 draft and spent the season as the team's third corner.

He has good size and speed and showed better coverage skills than the team expected from a player who attended a low-level NCAA Division II school.

Veteran Willie Williams returned to the Steelers after spending several seasons in Seattle and found the fountain of youth. Williams really seemed to benefit from the league's crackdown on holding in the secondary as he was always more of a cover corner than somebody who was going to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage and then play bump and run. Though he didn't have many interceptions, Williams showed he still had ability to play the ball in the air as he had a number of big deflections during the season after stepping into the starting lineup in place of Scott.

Williams is an unrestricted free agent, but could be brought back for one more season if he signs for the veteran minimum.

Ike Taylor made progress in his second season with the Steelers, but still makes some mental errors. Taylor has the physical skills to be a good NFL corner. But until he stays focused every play, he won't reach his potential. This will be a big offseason for Taylor, who could push Colclough for a starting job.

Veteran Chidi Iwuoma has spent the past few of seasons as a special teams ace. But Iwuoma wasn't as good in 2004 as he had been in previous seasons and may be wearing down. In fact, there were a couple of games during the season when head coach Bill Cowher deactivated him in favor of other players. Iwuoma will have his work cut out for him to make the roster next season.


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