Since the final, pain-staking moments of the Pittsburgh Steelers 29-23 loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Wild-Card Playoffs well over a month ago much of he talk has been about the Steelers offense. Rightfully so I might add, but where has the talk about the defense been in what can only be described as a failed season in 2011?
It’s hard to find fault with a defense that ranked number one in the league in total defense this past season but if you look closer you’ll find some eye-opening issues that seem to have been avoided in all of the off-season talk.
Before you read further, I know what you’re thinking. Is he forgetting all of the injury problems that plagued the defense this year? No, I’m not forgetting that at all but in staying with the very theme that Head Coach Mike Tomlin advocates weekly during the season… It’s all about ‘the next man up.’ You can’t make excuses and I’m not going to either.
This team must upgrade its’ pass rush to be blunt. Although Linebacker LaMarr Woodley had a good start to the season his hamstring injury essentially limited him in just about every way possible. Despite the efforts of both Lawrence Timmons and Jason Worilds who filled in for Woodley, the pass rush on that side of the field was invisible. It was obvious that Woodley’s absence affected James Harrison as well as his numbers were down even though Harrison still had a very productive season.
The bigger issue in the pass rush department is the three-man front which got very little pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season. While the responsibility of the front three isn’t necessarily to get pressure, they have to do a better job if Coordinator Dick LeBeau is going to continue playing this ‘bend-don’t-break’ scheme we saw so much of last season. Defensive end Brett Keisel often creates problems coming from his end position because of his size but he is not always a great pass rusher. Nose Tackles Casey Hampton and Steve McClendon have to get more push than they did last year in order to collapse the pocket. Again, this is not always their responsibility, but when it is, they have to be better.
Perhaps a wild-card in this is Cam Heyward who just finished his rookie season with the Steelers. He showed some great flashes of pass rushing ability and may prove versatile if he can spell both Keisel and Ziggy Hood at either end spot. Hood of course is perhaps a replacement for Hampton at nose tackle but that remains to be seen.
The other big problem with the defense in 2011 was the lack of turnover creation. Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 defense is designed to create pressure which will then create turnovers. The defense failed to do both on too many occasions. Sometimes these things can be cyclical but I don’t buy it in this particular case.
For whatever reason this past year, LeBeau seemed to really take the foot off of the gas peddle forcing his defense to keep the opposition in front of it much more so than in past seasons. You can certainly point to injuries as to why the aggressiveness lagged, but if you are going to run your scheme a certain way then why not get reserves who can do it?
I don’t want to sound like this is the worst defense since the expansion Tampa Bay Bucs because the defense did win it’s share of games when the offense couldn’t get out of its’ own way, but there was a lot missing from this defense and it wasn’t just due to injuries. They continued a trend that started back in the Super Bowl Season of 2008 when they struggled to stop teams from getting conversions on third and long situations. Much like creating more turnovers, this area has to improve.
There’s already a lot of talk about who the Steelers will go after with the 24th pick of the first round in April’s NFL Draft. Do they look to replace an aging Casey Hampton? Do they finally address the offensive line in the first round? No one knows for sure but one thing is clear, this defense has to get back to being aggressive and unpredictable. Simply put, it has to get back to being ‘Blitzburgh.’