Ahmad Black: The Man The Steelers Need To Close The Deal!

Gerald BallCorrespondent IFebruary 7, 2011

GAINESVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 04:  Safety Ahmad Black #35 of the Florida Gators runs after making an interception against the Miami University RedHawks at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on September 4, 2010 in Gainesville, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Yes, the Steelers have offensive line needs. Yes, the Steelers need help at WR and at DL. But Ahmad Black is their No. 1 need in the draft, and the Steelers had better hope he is available and take him if he is.

During the last few years, the Steelers' biggest weaknesses have been offensive line and secondary. That they have won despite those deficiencies - two Super Bowls in fact - has been nothing short of amazing, especially their recent Super Bowl win against Arizona despite being completely unable to run the ball AND having to defend the Cardinals' Pro Bowl arsenal. It was a credit to their great talent at other positions.

But in the 9-7 season following the Super Bowl win and in this Super Bowl loss, it is obvious that these holes cannot be left unplugged any longer. They can no longer rely on Ben Roethlisberger to overcome bad protection and an inconsistent running attack with his gambling play (and it can be proposed that they should not necessarily leave themselves in a position where they will HAVE to rely on Roethlisberger long term but that is another story for another day) and in particular can no longer rely on a great front seven to overcome a questionable secondary. And yes, the secondary is more important.

Why? First, because they still have Roethslisberger, good RBs and good TEs and WRs on offense. That means they can address their OL issues later in the draft where they will be able to find quality prospects like Auburn's RT/RG Lee Ziemba. Ignore his fourth round grade. He is more valuable to a power running game with a mobile QB like Pittsburgh than he would be for say, Indianapolis.

Second, because their secondary is just that suspect, and it is made even more so by the status of one Troy Polamalu. Polamalu has had injury problems the last few years, and because of the combination of his size and reckless playing style, that is only going to continue. Like Bob Sanders of the Colts from a few years back, there are real questions moving forward as to when he will be available and how effective he will be when he is available.

Realize that even with Polamalu, the Steelers' don't have a strong secondary because of the average to below average players at the other three spots: Bryant McFadden, Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor. Those guys plus their backups means that Polamalu is surrounded by an assortment of journeymen and late draft picks/undrafted free agents. Examples: right cornerback is manned by a fourth round pick backed up by a fifth round pick, the free safeties (who line up on the same side as the right cornerback) are an undrafted journeyman on his third team backed up by a sixth round pick). What a mess.

The Steelers get by only because of their scheme and a very good front seven, but that is a major reason why it is such a great tragedy. Improve the secondary, and that great front seven would REALLY be able to get after people, and Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau would be able to get a lot more creative and exotic with their schemes and packages. I recall it being stated before the Super Bowl that the Packers do a lot more with their front seven to try to make plays and confuse QBs than do the Steelers, who try to keep it simple. Well, the reason for this is the Packers have Tramon Williams, Charles Woodson and Nick Collins in their secondary, plus will have Morgan Burnett back next season for one of the better, deeper secondaries in the NFL. Instead of using their front seven to hide their secondary's flaws, their secondary makes guys like Clay Matthews, A.J. Hawk, Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji to be even more effective. The Steelers need a secondary that will allow their own impressive front seven even better.

Make no mistake, Ahmad Black is the first building block. There are questions about his size, but Polamalu experienced the same first off. Second, as the fellow is a three year letterman on an ultra-talented Florida defense in the rough and tumble SEC, it is impossible to claim he benefited from soft or weak competition. One only has to look at how well his teammates from that same defense, Joe Haden and Major Wright, played in their rookie NFL seasons.

Haden, who was criticized for his lack of size (and speed), was a finalist for rookie of the year (and this in a great year for NFL rookies that included Sam Bradford and Ndamukong Suh). Jermaine Cunningham was also on that Gators defense, and he wound up starting 11 games for the New England Patriots. Carlos Dunlap was another guy bashed during the predraft process, but he went on to log 9.5 sacks for the Bengals despite playing in only 12 games. Another Patriots rookie from Florida, Brandon Spikes, who was attacked by the media as too slow (picking up on this theme?) started eight games and wound up with 61 tackles and an INT, and would have had more had he not been suspended for four games because of his ADHD medication. And the secondary mate at Florida, Major Wright, who was also dropped because of an alleged lack of speed, had 24 tackles as a reserve for a great secondary in Chicago (which means that he would have started for a lot of teams, including possibly Pittsburgh ... only a 70-tackle, five-INT season by Chris Harris kept Wright on the bench) including six against Philadelphia and six against New England.

And that is just the defense. Pittsburgh fans ought to know something about one of Black's teammates from the offense: someone named Maurkice Pouncey. Look, if NFL GMs are dumb enough to let Pouncey's TWIN BROTHER drop to the Steelers in the draft, then of course the Steelers should take him. But I doubt seriously that Mike Pouncey is going to drop that far past his brother's No. 18 spot from last year (in a better, deeper draft at that) if he drops past 18 at all. But mentioning Pouncey (as well as other offensive players like Aaron Hernandez, Riley Cooper and David Nelson, all of whom made plays in the NFL last year, as did some fellow named Tim Tebow) shows that Black had to be the real deal just to get on the field for the Gators in 2008 and 2009. 

You may say, "Black only looked so good because of the great talent around him." Fine, except that Black had an excellent season in 2010 without Cunningham, Dunlap, Spikes, Wright and Haden. Instead of being carried by those players, it can be proposed that without all that talent around him, Black might have put up numbers like Eric Berry, the Tennessee safety who was also ripped by a lot of "experts" but wound up in the Pro Bowl as a rookie with 77 tackles and four INTs. Indeed, Black went from averaging 55 tackles the previous two seasons to having 109, and he added five INTs. Impressive considering the Gators had real problems rushing the passer all year long. Any doubts about Black should have been erased when he was named MVP of the Outback Bowl. (One writer states that he was a better college player than his high school teammates Mike and Maurkice Pouncey.)

Now, Black is being projected as a second or third round draft pick. (This was after Florida's coaches initially telling him he was too slow and too small to play Division I football.) Great. The Steelers will be able to get him by trading down! Or, if Pouncey is available in the first round, they can trade up to get Black in the second.

The outstanding thing about Black is he can play both safety and CB. So, the Steelers can draft him and play him wherever they need him most: to replace the worst player on the weakest link on the team, whether it is at either CB spot (and the Steelers' zone-based coverage schemes would allow Black to play CB, and please remember how the Steelers once moved safety Carnell Lake to CB for an entire season because of an injury to Deon Figures, and how he played very well there and that Lake actually played LINEBACKER in college) or at the safety spot across from Polamalu (and safety is more important to Pittsburgh's defense than is CB anyway).

The best part is Black can not only make the Steelers better while playing WITH Polamalu, but he can replace Polamalu. He can play in Polamalu's spot when the future Hall of Famer is injured, and he can also replace Polamalu permanently when he retires or moves on. Black is just that talented and versatile.

He is not another Polamalu, mind you ... there is only one Polamalu. Instead, he is another highly skilled and versatile defensive back who can both cover and tackle. The Steelers can survive with Black if Polamalu is not in the lineup and can dominate with Black when pairing them both together, especially if they both play safety.

Bottom line: Ahmad Black is the best fit for the Steelers' biggest need. They had better make sure they add the guy to their roster.