Steelers' young defensive backs up for test

The Steelers will be without two starters in their secondary tonight against the Denver Broncos, who've thrown more often than anyone else this preseason.

The NFL's best pass defense in 2008 was the 16th best in 2009.

Those Steelers, in fact, allowed more passing yards last season than any year since 2002.

The area was addressed in the offseason by trading for former starter Bryant McFadden, signing free-agent Will Allen, drafting Crezdon Butler, coaching up youngsters Keenan Lewis, Joe Burnett and Ryan Mundy, and nursing Troy Polamalu back to health.

Throw in the improvement made by Anthony Madison, and the return of Will Gay to his more comfortable nickel position, and the Steelers could very well return to their clampdown ways of 2008.

The Denver Broncos (0-2) will provide a significant dress rehearsal for that revamped secondary tonight. Through two preseason games, the Broncos are averaging 40.5 passes per game to lead all NFL teams. With running backs Correll Buckhalter and Knowshon Moreno out, and LenDale White questionable, quarterbacks Kyle Orton and Brady Quinn are expected to continue filling the Colorado sky with passes. Rookie Tim Tebow's not expected to play because of bruised ribs.

The Steelers, so far, have seen the second fewest passes in the preseason, only 29 per game. "So I'm looking forward to this one," said Steelers secondary coach Ray Horton. "I'll take all the work we can get."

Horton will have a chance to look at some of his depth early with McFadden (chest) and Ryan Clark (precaution) having been ruled out of the game. McFadden will be replaced by Lewis at left cornerback and Clark will be replaced by Allen at free safety.

Both replacements are enjoying strong preseasons. Lewis is a long-limbed, physical corner in the Steelers' tradition, while Allen showed off an aggressive nature while playing in the New York Giants' backfield last week.

Horton will also get a nice, long look tonight at Mundy, Burnett, Butler and Madison. It's a group that promises to cause plenty of consternation among the coaching staff on cut-down day.

"Obviously we're giving Keenan a good look because he deserves a good look. He's doing an excellent job. He's assimilated into the system very well," Horton said. "Joe has been a nickel, a jack-of-all-trades type guy, and he continues to do that. I was happy with his (interception) in the last game. It was huge. And Crezdon, I'm just trying to overload him with as much as I can. He's playing four positions for me, maybe five, and so far too much isn't enough. He can handle it. So we're excited about him. Anthony's playing inside, too, and doing a fantastic job. I didn't know if he could handle the inside because it's not easy, and he's done an excellent job. All of the sudden he becomes more valuable.

"My top four safeties are, depth-wise, the four best safeties in the league. You go around the league and find four better ones. You may find one here and one there, but I don't know if you'll find four better safeties in the league. I think people take Ryan Clark for granted. I don't know why. He's a tough guy. He gave up two organs to play. And he's smart, does everything, and counterbalances Troy. And then Will Allen is a fantastic pickup and upgrade. He's a young body and Ryan (Mundy) is the same thing. So I've got four tough, smart, physical safeties."

It's the kind of depth the Steelers clearly missed last season, but tonight the Broncos can help them keep the right ones for this season.


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