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Under the radar now, Steelers’ D needs better season in 2012

You can hardly be blamed if you have forgotten this week that there are two sides to the game of football. On one side of course is the offense, which has been nothing short of a paparazzi-trailed festival with new coordinator Todd Haley in Pittsburgh now. And then…. There is the defense.

Who would have ever thought that in the town the redefined defense in the National Football League that the group of eleven warriors would be nothing more than a sideshow as 2012 OTAs are now in full swing?

Journalists and bloggers will never admit it especially once the season is in full swing but let’s face it; The 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers are about offense right now and with very good reason. Changing coordinators is a big deal in any NFL city, but bringing in someone who hasn’t been on staff with the Steelers before is like someone landing on Mars. We just aren’t used to it.

So while the offense goes under the microscope and Ben Roethlisberger fights off microphones, the defense and coordinator Dick LeBeau fly under the radar. Perhaps this is a good thing but as I mentioned at the end of 2011, they should no longer receive the ‘pass’ they seemingly have been given.

The 2011 Steelers defense again ranked at the top in terms of total defense and had their share of highlights on the way to a 12-4 season. They were able to bail out the offense in games where it was clear the offense just wasn’t getting it done, but there were some severe cracks in version two of the Steel Curtain.

They forced the fewest turnovers in recent memory and the lack of pressure on the quarterback was evident throughout the season. Injuries to guys like LaMarr Woodley, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel were damaging to say the least but every team deals with injuries and it just can’t be used as an excuse.

They again struggled on many third and long situations which is a direct result of the lack of significant pass rush. LeBeau’s 3-4 defense is predicated on pressure and allowing cornerbacks to play off receivers. This is great when the QB is under pressure and has to get rid of the ball, but when he has time to make reads and deep throws any defense crumbles, especially an aging one.

Now you have to replace the leadership of the departed Aaron Smith and James Farrior. I for one will miss both guys but I welcome the speed that will be on the field in place of Potsie who became increasingly more vulnerable covering backs and tight ends. Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons will hold down the inside linebacker spots, but I really think we may see some of third round pick Sean Spence in passing situations.

Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are not getting any younger and we can expect Clark to miss the opener in Denver as he did with the playoff game due to his health issues. Ryan Mundy is a capable back-up but if Cortez Allen sees some time at safety as some project, that could send the message that perhaps Mundy isn’t the best back-up but we’ll see. Ike Taylor is in his tenth year, but seems to be pretty solid at one corner while the other is up for grabs. Keenan Lewis believes he’ll have a Pro Bowl season, but 2nd year guys Allen and Curtis Brown will also vie for the job.

The defensive line could become an even bigger asset for this team if the mix of youth and experience comes together. With veterans like Keisel and Hampton being spelled by Steve McLendon, Ziggy Hood and Alameda Ta’amu, this unit could do some serious damage and I didn’t even mention the #1 pick from last year, Cameron Heyward.

There is much to like about the potential of the 2012 Steelers’ defense, but the most important cog in the machine is actually the guy standing on the sidelines. Dick LeBeau has to have a better season in terms of creativity and getting guys to the right spots on the field. The final play of the season was indicative of a man who seemed to be complacent and almost arrogant about how good his defense was and how pathetic Tim Tebow was thought to be.

The feared ‘X-fire’ stunt literally disappeared last season and with William Gay (now in Arizona) opposite Ike Taylor, the corner blitz was as non-existent as a Browns’ Super Bowl appearance. Part of those problems stem from who was on the field and when. LeBeau has never been fond of rookies so the likelihood that Allen or Brown was going to be coming off of the edge was extremely unlikely.

Still, where was the creativity? The 3-4 allows for so many different variations of where pressure can come from and LeBeau seemed to almost go back to page one of the very playbook he designed. Two years ago we saw some of that creativity when he used that ‘amoeba-like’ defense where basically everyone except the nose tackle was standing or moving around.  We saw none of that last season.

The defense is not going to be allowed any free passes this year as the offense learns an entirely new language. LeBeau’s crew will have to make sure they keep opponents at bay early in the season as the offenses adjusts. With trips to Denver and Oakland in the first three weeks this will be easier said than done.

The 2012 version of the Steel Curtain has the potential to be very good but should injuries to veteran players begin to take a toll things could go poorly in short order because as we saw last year, LeBeau gets conservative with younger players on the field.

One thing is for sure, the defense will not get a free pass this year. Giving up long drives to Curtis Painter and Tyler Palko cannot be tolerated regardless of what the offense is or isn’t doing. The cracks in the ‘LeBeau 3-4′ could be traced as far back as Super Bowl XLIII when they surrendered a 20-7 lead in the second half. We have seen more of that the last several seasons in one manner or another.

Numbers, rankings and statistics are great but I want to see dominance, turnovers and pressure. Let the guys loose Coach! I’ll never have a problem with creativity.

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