You can hardly blame anyone associated with the Pittsburgh Steelers for talking mostly about the offense during the offseason of 2012. After all, from red zone failures to Bruce Arians’ ‘retirement’ and the eventual hiring of Todd Haley, there has been much to discuss.
I believe there is one guy in particular who has to be downright giddy over this even though he is the coordinator on the other side of the ball. Why might you ask would Dick LeBeau be thrilled that very little attention is being paid to his version of the ‘Steel Curtain?’ Probably because LeBeau knows that anything said about the ‘D’ would not exactly be glowing with accolades right now.
Our last vision of the NFL’s top-rated defense from 2011 was that of Damaryius Thomas of the Denver Broncos stiff-arming Ike Taylor as if he were a father stiff-arming his 10-year old son. Thomas would score on that play, the first of overtime and perhaps even worse, the play would set the Tim Tebow fire into an all-out inferno as the favored Steelers’ limped off the field in defeat.
There is plenty of blame to go around for that defeat and it includes the offense which sputtered on two opening drives that started so promising and resulted in two Shaun Suisham field goals. The defense however, exhibited a pattern that some could trace back to the victory over Arizona in Super Bowl XLIII in which it blew a 20-7 second half lead before being saved by the heroics of Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes.
It was not the only time Roethlisberger and the offense bailed out LeBeau’s defense either. We’ve seen it all too often the last few years. I know it sounds like I’m bashing LeBeau and I suppose in some ways I am but to be clear, I really do like and respect ‘Coach Dad’ very, very much. He is an incredible innovator and is known for being a solid tactician on the sidelines and no assistant coach has ever had his players’ respect the way LeBeau garners it.
The problem is that being a number one defense is not what it once was. The two Super Bowl participants this past season both had defenses that ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in total defense. The Green Bay Packers, the best team throughout much of the season, also were ranked low. I’m not suggesting that defenses become “average,” but I am suggesting that perhaps the time has come for an overhaul of the Dick LeBeau 3-4 defense as we’ve known it.
Following the victory over New England during the 2011 regular season, many people believed that LeBeau was finally making the proper adjustments to handle a quick passing game. He had defensive backs jamming Patriots’ receivers at the line, especially in the slot. The pass rush was actually pretty good too until LaMarr Woodley went down with his hamstring injury. Keep in mind that the Steelers were #1 overall and against the pass, but their numbers against the rush dropped significantly.
LeBeau now faces a 2012 without James Farrior and without Aaron Smith. He obviously knows how to adapt with Smith out, but Farrior being gone will a major adjustment. Whether it’s Larry Foote, Stevenson Sylvester or a newcomer, that individual will not have the leadership skills and knowledge of Farrior.
William Gay, last season’s starter at the left cornerback spot is now in Pittsburgh West, otherwise known as Arizona. LeBeau will need to decide between Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen or Curtis Brown. Many think Allen’s future is at safety, but any way you slice it, there were will be question marks at that position.
Factor in an aging and rehabilitating Casey Hampton at nose and the tenuous at best health of Troy Polamalu and James Harrison and for that matter, Woodley and LeBeau could be using duct tape and glue to keep the ‘D’ in shape. Let’s say the defense stays healthy for the most part in 2012, what does LeBeau need to do eliminate the comebacks and big plays that often nipped at this squad last season?
My first thought is pressure. We saw much less of the famed ‘X Fire’ stunt by the middle linebackers this season and when we did, it was relatively ineffective. Perhaps it is becoming too predictable? One of the other things we saw less of was corner blitzes. With Gay no longer in the slot and one of the team’s best blitzers, that part of the scheme was gone and it showed.
Cam Heyward showed some great promise at times as a rookie in 2011, but he’ll be depended on for more consistency in both the rush and allowing the outside backers to be more successful as well. Ziggy Hood is in a similar boat in terms of finding consistency.
Strategically, LeBeau must improve this team on 3rd downs. The Steelers gave up way too many conversions especially in 3rd and long situations. For a defense that is going to again be one of the older ones, this area has to improve.
I realize that in some ways it could be a lot worse. We could have a defense that resembles a complete and total failure like so many other teams in the league. We still have a solid core and I trust that LeBeau recognizes the deficiencies of his defense and will make the necessary adjustments. Unfortunately, LeBeau has some physical and just as importantly, some mental rehab to do on this defense. There is no question that the loss in Denver was bad, but how it lost is what triggers the most mentally unstable episodes for fans and players.
What we need to see is the fire and relentless nature of the Steelers’ defense for four quarters, not just when ‘Renegade’ plays at Heinz Field. We need to see stops on third downs and more creativity in blitz packages. Being the number one defense doesn’t mean anything if you are exiting the playoffs in the Wild-Card Round.
This past off-season, Bruce Arians was the easy and for the most part, well-deserved target of the Steeler Nation’s rage over the early post-season departure. While Dick LeBeau is well-respected and well-liked, even the ‘Nation has limits to how much it can handle. Coach LeBeau needs to get this defense back to being unpredictable, frenzied and violent or more big plays and blown leads could lead to his ‘retirement’ in 2013.