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Hopes are high for 3 young CBs

Posted Jun 3, 2012

Maybe William Gay was on to something.

Maybe the guy who tied for the team lead in interceptions last season with Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu, who tied for second on the team in passes defensed with Polamalu, who played a lot of cornerback for a team that won a lot of games, saw the handwriting on the wall. Granted, William Gay never was a threat to make the Pro Bowl and his lot with the Steelers always was going to be as a contributor and not a star. But still, he was not a disposal part.

That’s why it was eye-opening when Gay left the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent for an Arizona Cardinals team that definitely did not break the bank to sign him.

As the Steelers head into their third week of OTAs, Gay’s rationale behind his career move is coming into focus. Based on what has been happening on the field during the six OTAs to date, Gay was looking at an immediate future with the Steelers where if he were not disposable then he certainly was looking replaceable.

There are many interesting story lines that will accompany the Steelers to Saint Vincent College when they open training camp there sometime in late July, and at the top of any list of those is the promise shown by the team’s trio of up-and-coming cornerbacks – Keenan Lewis, Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen.

The trio was listed in the previous sentence in the order by which they came to the Steelers, with Lewis, a fourth-year pro, being the senior member, and with Brown and Allen coming in the third and fourth rounds, respectively, of the 2011 NFL Draft. They are still listed by seniority, because as of right now there is no definitive way to list them based on their status for the upcoming 2012 season. Right now, all three cornerbacks still are in the mix for everything, including the starting spot opposite Ike Taylor.

“In the secondary, we are in good shape but our young corners are going to have to step in there and fill the void of Will Gay,” said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. “Will also played nickel, so there will probably be a couple of players vying to fill the role of the two jobs Will Gay did for us.”

Nothing will be won or lost in this competition until the pads go on at training camp, but don’t take that to mean the work already hasn’t begun in earnest. Two weeks into OTAs, Brown seems to be around the football an awful lot during 7-on-7 and team drills; Lewis has been staying late regularly to work on his craft; and Allen continues to look and act like an NFL cornerback.

“Curtis Brown excelled on special teams (as a rookie),” said LeBeau. “He showed a willingness to compete, get to the ball and I’m sure that his tackles were up near the top. He stood out every week. He has great speed and quickness.

“Allen played more from scrimmage for us (in 2011) and also did a good job on special teams. I like his length. He’s a nice, tall, well-coordinated athlete who to my observation at least to this point has the demeanor you are looking for in a defensive corner. Corners have to have a very short memory. It isn’t all going to be good for them. This young man can handle adversity, has faced adversity, and has had some good plays and some plays we’re working on to get better. In the final analysis, he did a heck of a job in our victory against New England. He took their wonderful tight end (Rob Gronkowski) and neutralized him. (Gronkowski) couldn’t get away from Allen. Allen also played very well in both Cincinnati games when they were putting the extra wide receiver out there with speed all over the field. He matched their speed and gave us a capable defensive plan.”

Allen’s rookie training camp was marred by some nagging injuries that had him miss the first three preseason games, but with a roster spot on the line in the preseason finale, he contributed two tackles and three passes defensed. Brown put on a similar strong finishing kick to his bid for a roster spot with four tackles, two passes defensed and a special teams tackle in the same preseason finale.

Allen and Brown forever will be linked because they were in the same draft class; Lewis, in turn, often is linked with Mike Wallace because they became friends while growing up in the same New Orleans neighborhood and then came to the Steelers as a pair of third-round picks in 2009.

“Keenan was pretty much our third or fourth cornerback all through (2011),” said LeBeau. “He played in all of the third-down situations, he played quite a bit of scrimmage football. We statistically led the National Football League in passing yardage yielded, percentages completed – there were a lot of pluses in the pass defense side of our defensive statistics. Had we not had four or five corners who could step in there and deliver on Sunday for us, we couldn’t have accumulated those statistics. Keenan has already proven he can do the job.

“We think the horizon is an upward thing for several of these men, and Keenan is one of those guys. I like his size. He has good length, tremendous speed, has competed at a top level all through his career. I think the future is bright for Keenan Lewis.”

William Gay likely saw the same thing, and that’s why he left for Arizona.

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