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How the Steelers fill leadership void without Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers secondary doesn't have to duplicate Troy Polamalu's long-locked marketability or his penchant for perfectly timed leaps over the line of scrimmage.

It doesn't have to recreate Ike Taylor's swag-infectious attitude and boisterous nature.

Those players had their own style.

But the Steelers must replace the leadership, which safety Mike Mitchell admits is an inexact science. He doesn't know what the balance should be between honoring leadership traits of past players and forging a new identity for the secondary. Mitchell believes he has leadership qualities after six NFL seasons and 39 starts. On the defense, he knows Cam Heyward and Lawrence Timmons have leadership. But this is a new era for Steelers football that everyone must navigate.

The secondary's entire two-deep has 176 career starts, and 77 of those belong to veteran corner William Gay. Improving last year's 27th-ranked passing defense will require an injection of playmaking and leadership.

If the defense comes together, the secondary must employ the advice that Mitchell remembers hearing constantly from Polamalu -- one player makes a play, we all make a play.

Mitchell carries those words with him, making sure Polamalu's locker-room impact still resonates. For example, a corner can play a shade underneath a route to force a pass higher than it should be, leading to a teammate's interception. A good jam at the line of scrimmage allows a safety that extra second to get over the top.

"We're in this thing together," Mitchell said. "A lot of people don't really understand, when you're a DB, there are a lot of lonely moments. You're always the last person in the screen, whether it's your fault or not. [Togetherness] is what we've adopted, and that's what we feel."

Pittsburgh's secondary is an amalgam of talent, uncertainty, unfulfilled potential and stability. Corner Cortez Allen has gone from a rising NFL corner to Pro Football Focus' worst-graded corner in 2014. He aims to change that. Gay and Mitchell are reliable options, not stars. Antwon Blake, who's taking ownership of a starting corner spot, has one career start in three years.

Safety Shamarko Thomas is working to emerge from Polamalu's shadow, but there's no guarantee he'll start in his third season. Safety Will Allen has good experience but hasn't started a full season since 2006. Second-round pick Senquez Golson projects as a productive nickel corner but let's see what he can do in training camp.

The lineup doesn't appear fear-inducing on paper, but Blake sees several playmakers on the field each day. Plus, the stability comes from the system, the Steelers' culture and the presence of veterans still intact.

"Those guys are showing flashes out there every day," said Blake of the secondary.

Leadership won't mean much if the Steelers don't improve the league's No. 25 ranking in interceptions with 11. Teams threw for 4,049 yards on the Steelers last season, so reducing that number could bait quarterbacks into a few more mistakes.

Mitchell knows leadership can't be forced. It must happen organically. So his plan is simple -- don't keep any secrets. Tell teammates what he's seeing on the field and how he's feeling.

And, oh yeah, put in the work first.

"When you do that, guys tend to follow you," Mitchell said.