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Robinson: As NFL nears 500 yards-per-game passing level, Steelers’ secondary gets a makeover

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Mike MitchellFree agency is bringing change to the Steelers’ secondary — and not just because who’s coming in (Mike Mitchell, above, and Brice McCain), but also because who’s staying (Ike Taylor).

The offseason workouts that begin next month on the South Side and will conclude with the June 17-19 minicamp will offer a better idea of how coach Mike Tomlin, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and secondary coach Carnell Lake will employ their personnel.

For now, it’s obvious Mitchell will be the free safety, replacing Ryan Clark, who is headed back to Washington eight years after he left the Redskins to sign with the Steelers. Troy Polamalu will remain as the free safety, and Shamarko Thomas’ debut as a full-time NFL starter has been pushed back at least a year, barring injury.

The ever-increasing reliance upon the passing game as the primary method of moving the football by NFL offenses was further illustrated by the number of salary cap-friendly deals signed by running backs during free agency, including LeGarrette Blount’s $4 million, two-year deal with the Steelers.

Teams now believe it’s not necessary to spend a lot of money or expend high draft picks to find a reliable running back, especially if their offense — like most — is based around the passing game. There wasn’t a single running back drafted on the first round last year.

Here’s why: NFL teams threw for a combined 120,633 yards last season, an average of 471.2 yards passing per game for both teams. That’s way, way up from the combined 109,467 yards in 2003, when teams combined to average 400.8 yards passing per game. That’s a 75 yards per game increase in only a decade’s worth of time, or the equivalent of one long scoring drive.

All this passing is putting extra pressure on the back end of defenses, and having two — or more — reliable safeties is almost a must.

“The safety position, by nature, is one that is stressful, and those guys are a big component of a good defense,” Tomlin said.

However, Tomlin disputes that having good safeties is more important than it was a decade ago. The Steelers have three proven safeties in Polamalu, Mitchell and the re-signed Will Allen, and they thought enough of Thomas to trade a 2014 third-round pick to move up and draft him last year.

“I think it’s always been important,” Tomlin said. “I think that a component of defense is great safety play. It’s something that I’ve been around since the early days for me a professional. I’ve been around guys like John Lynch and Dexter Jackson, so I think that if you’re interested in playing good defense, you better have guys at the safety position that can confuse themselves in the run and can be what they need to be in the passing game.”

Mitchell, who turns 27 in June, is nearly eight years younger than Clark, who turns 35 in October, and has less than one full season as an NFL starter with the Carolina Panthers after spending his first three seasons primarily as a backup with the Oakland Raiders.
“He’s big, he’s fast and the biggest thing about the free safety position in our defense is you have to be smart,” general manager Kevin Colbert said. “Based on the reports we had about Mike coming out of college (Ohio U.), based on some of the things you can see him doing on film, and some of the information we had with him in the NFL, we thought he’d be able to handle it.”
Colbert added, “”Now he’ll have to go through and adjustment period of making calls specific to our defense, but he certainly has the capabilities to do that. He’s the type of guy we like to sign as a free agent. Usually, the guys we like to get if we do make a big investment are guys coming off of their first contract. Well he’s coming off of his second contract but his second contract was only a year. The nice thing is he’s experienced but I think there is a lot of room for continued growth.”
As for Thomas, Colbert said, “He fell behind (in 2013) because he was missing time (with an injury) and then Will Allen did a nice job of stepping back in after we picked him up, and solidifying the back end a bit. Shamarko will come out of last year a much better player, we think, this year.”

Taylor’s decision to take a $4.25 million pay cut, from $7 million to $2.75 million, means the Steelers’ top three cornerbacks from last season will return. The question is whether Taylor remains as a starter, or whether Cortez Allen moves in, with William Gay on the other side and Taylor playing situationally. Neither Tomlin nor Colbert offered a hint during the recent NFL meetings.

Keeping Taylor at relatively modest dollars meant not having to seek a replacement on the open market or expending a draft pick that otherwise might not have been used on a cornerback.

“We’re excited about retaining him, moving forward with him and having the significant years of his career be in Pittsburgh,” Tomlin said.

On Tuesday, the Steelers added former Houston Texans starter Brice McCain, who will be a backup cornerback and special teams player for them. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound McCain was the NFL’s worst-rated cornerback last season, according to Pro Football Focus.

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