By John Harris
Monday, April 21, 2008
Great pass rusher or great defensive back?
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin left no doubt what he wants.
"Great pass rusher -- because the ball never comes out," Tomlin told reporters at the recent NFL owners meetings in Florida.
The Steelers recorded 36 sacks in 2007. Tomlin wants and expects more sacks in 2008.
However, it's not as if the Steelers' defense struggled. The numbers prove that.
The team finished with the NFL's top-ranked defense last season -- No. 2 against the pass and No. 2 against the run.
Unfortunately, in the biggest games against the best teams, the Steelers couldn't overcome their lack of a consistent pass rush from their traditional 3-4 alignment.
Remember that as the Steelers prepare for the draft this weekend.
Potential Steelers first-round draft picks include North Carolina defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer, Clemson defensive end Phillip Merling and Miami defensive end Calais Campbell.
"If you want to apply pressure to the quarterback, I think it starts first and foremost with your ability to apply pressure with your rushmen, your people that are paid to do it," Tomlin said.
The Steelers plan to stick with the 3-4. So, they need their linebackers to become more active pass rushers, their interior line to generate more of a push upfield or, ideally, a better combination of the two.
Based on last year's sack total, the Steelers' top pass rushers were all linebackers.
Pro Bowl outside linebacker James Harrison led the team with 8 1/2 sacks, inside linebacker James Farrior had six, outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley had four in limited action and inside linebacker Larry Foote had three.
Up front, defensive ends Aaron Smith (2 1/2) and Brett Keisel (2) and nose tackle Casey Hampton (1) accounted for 5 1/2 sacks.
That may not be enough for Tomlin, who's a fan of the way the Super Bowl champion New York Giants generated a pass rush without blitzing.
New York led the NFL with 53 sacks -- six more than New England, which lost to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
Quick, name the 2007 Giants' starting secondary.
Just know that the Steelers have a better secondary than the Giants, while the Giants have a better pass rush than the Steelers.
"I have a passion for those rushers, man. Those guys are unique animals," Tomlin said. "When you have them, you have a chance to play great defense, and when you have a chance to play great defense, you have a chance to win."