By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers opened training camp with nine cornerbacks and now have 11 after two recent pickups, but only two from the original group have remained healthy throughout and the two arrivals still don’t know all the plays.
So, that has left the Steelers’ secondary quite undermanned, as starters Ike Taylor (left thumb surgery) and Bryant McFadden (right quad, hamstring) might not hit the field again until the season-opener Sept. 11 at Baltimore.
“I’m still on schedule to be back for that Ravens game, and I’ve been working hard to stay in shape,” Taylor said. “But Willie Gay and Keenan, and the other guys, they’re doing a good job so far.”
Fifth-year player William Gay and third-year pro Keenan Lewis started against the Philadelphia Eagles this past Thursday night, and were in the top spots when practice resumed again Saturday at the UPMC Sports Complex.
“I’m just happy for the opportunity,” Lewis said. “I started slow with some migraines, but I think I finished camp pretty strong and picked up where I left off once we got back here.”
The backups to Gay and Lewis Saturday were rookie third-round pick Curtis Brown and first-year player Donovan Warren, who left Michigan after his junior season and expected to be picked in the 2010 draft. But he never made it and had to sign with the New York Jets as a free agent.
However, once they cut him he never re-signed with anybody and basically sat out last season. The Steelers signed him to a futures contract in late January. He’s been on their roster ever since and could stay there if he continues to have a strong preseason.
“I feel like I’ve tried to make the most of my opportunities, maximizing my reps and doing what the coaches have asked me to do,” Warren said. “I want to go out there and make plays to show the guys that I know this defense, that I’m not just a fast learner, but I also can play the game.
“So, I feel real comfortable in this defense now, the terminology, the chemistry with the guys, I’ve picked all that up already. So, that has allowed me to play a lot faster. All I have to do now is go out there and make some plays and get better each and every day.”
Warren did not finish practice Saturday due to a tight hip flexor, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. Brown had a sore hamstring nearly all of training camp, but he practiced the previous week and played considerably against the Eagles.
“There’s an opportunity for me at corner, but I still have a lot of work to get in,” Brown said. “I missed a lot of time, obviously, but I just had to stay in the study room to learn my plays during that down time. Now, I’m back on the field and just trying to get my conditioning better so I can finish my practices.
“And it’s starting to look good for me. So, I’ve just got to go out there and do what I can, contribute in any way that I can, like special teams or even reserve cornerback. But I don’t care how, just as long as I can get on the field and contribute. Hopefully, I get even more time in this next game.”
The Steelers play host to the Atlanta Falcons Saturday night at 7:30 at Heinz Field, and whichever cornerbacks remain healthy until then will get the reps. Cortez Allen (hamstring), selected in the fourth round this year, and second-year player Crezdon Butler (quad) aren’t likely to be among them. those two maybe practiced once each so far due to their injuries.
The other corners on the roster include undrafted rookie free agent Niles Brinkley from Wisconsin, and newcomers Macho Harris, a third-year player, and sixth-year veteran Kevin Dockery.
The Steelers usually keep 10 defensive backs with six cornerbacks and four safeties. The four safeties are Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Ryan Mundy and Will Allen. The regular starters, Taylor and McFadden, as well as top reserve Gay should be locks since they are the only ones with experience. But the Steelers also like Warren and Brown, whom they drafted from Texas this year.
If Butler and Allen don’t get on the field soon, their days could be numbered. And it remains to be seen how Harris and Dockery fit in, if at all.
Notes: DE Aaron Smith (right knee) and OT Jonathan Scott (right knee) were riding stationary bikes during practice, while RB Baron Batch has begun rehabilitating his right knee after surgery last week to repair his torn right ACL. … Ziggy Hood ran with the first team in place of Smith at left defensive end. … OLB Jason Worilds (quad) could not finish practice. … Tomlin said that OL Doug Legursky missed practice due to a lower-leg injury and would be out a couple days. … Place-kicker Shaun Suisham recently had a laparoscopic procedure to remove his appendix and hoped it would allow him to return soon. … Tomlin had the Steelers on the field for about 2 hours, 45 minutes, and then he hustled to Hempfield High School in Westmoreland County to watch Terrelle Pryor’s workout for Monday’s supplemental draft.