I wrote this for our friends over at ESPN970 and if you follow me on Twitter you'll see a link soon. Food for thought I guess.
As the merry-go-round of potential offensive coordinators continues to spin, I have to comment on something I’ve seen on some social networking sites as well as on Pittsburgh Steelers’ message boards. Several individuals have questioned whether or not Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau and his defense are getting a free pass in light of the dismissal of OC Bruce Arians.
This isn’t as easy to say out loud as you might expect because LeBeau is such a revered figure in the Steel City. As much as I want to say that LeBeau and his defense were worthy of their #1 overall ranking this past season I can’t. I continue to find misleading numbers and more importantly, breakdowns at absolutely crucial points of games. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a very good defense which did in fact win the team some games when the offense was struggling, but I am seeing cracks in the facade and I’m not the only one.
In the season-opener at Baltimore, the offense turned the ball over seven times so it’s hard to fault any defense for losing that game, but the team looked slow and old and we all know it. The game in Houston really should have been a blowout if it were not for a couple of flags the final score would have had much greater disparity than it did. The second game with Baltimore was right in our hands until the defense allowed Joe Flacco to march the Ravens 92 yards in under two minutes for the victory. The capper however was the ‘Debacle in Denver’ as I call it where our top-ranked D allowed Tim Tebow to throw for 316 yards including the 80 yard game-winner in overtime.
The play in Denver was symbolic of my point for several reasons. One, the play reeked of arrogance by having so many guys in the box and leaving the middle of the field exposed. We certainly believe someone messed up whether it was Ryan Mundy or Troy Polamalu or Ike Taylor, but either way it exposed one of the crucial problems from throughout the season and that was a lack of pass rush. Yes, injuries have a lot to do with it but they are part of the game and if you cannot call your normal defense with back-ups in then they probably shouldn’t be your back-ups.
What happened to the famed ‘X-Fire Cross’ blitz? It disappeared as the season went on and what happened to disguising the fronts especially in passing situations that we saw so much of last season? Where were the corner blitzes that have always been a staple of the Steelers’ 3-4? If we didn’t have the personnel to be doing ‘what we do’ then something needs to change.
I am perfectly fine with Bruce Arians no longer calling the plays in Pittsburgh. I believe he did what he could with this group on offense, but now someone needs to take it to the next level and score more touchdowns in the Red Zone. Who that will be I don’t know, but to say that the defense is completely innocent of the failures of the season would be grossly incorrect. They say defense wins championships and ultimately that is true because whoever holds their opponent to fewer points wins, but being the number one defense doesn’t guarantee a damn thing. Ask the Giants and Patriots if they would trade a Super Bowl appearance for having the league’s best defense and I’m pretty confident you’ll get a swift reply of “hell no!”
This is a huge year for Mike Tomlin for many reasons but it is just as important for Dick LeBeau. He has to get this defense younger, faster and in the right positions more often and that may require change. Is he willing to do it is the question? There can no longer be free passes in this organization as there is too much at risk and remember, success isn’t always in the numbers.