With Joey Porter out of the picture it's clear what the Mike Tomlin-led Steelers have in mind: a switch to the 4-3, Cover-2 scheme. While reports have varied, Ryan Wilson thinks this move, coupled with Aaron Smith's new deal, points to a philosophical change in how Pittsburgh does defense.
I have a question: Now that Joey Porter is out, what does this mean for the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense? As best I can tell, head coach Mike Tomlin had two things in mind when he, along with director of football operations Kevin Colbert, made the decision to release Porter: First, there will be no power struggle with the popular veteran; Tomlin is wholly in charge. Second, and most important, Tomlin has now cleared the way to transition to the 4-3, Cover-2 scheme he learned in Tampa Bay under Tony Dungy.
Yes, Colbert offered that Porter's release was necessary to get under the $109 million salary cap (up $7 million from last year) by the start of free agency, but that's PR spin. Porter got his walking papers because he wanted a new deal, and the soon-to-be 30-year-old wasn't in the team's long-term plans. Now, less than two months on the job, Tomlin can begin building the Pittsburgh's defense in his own image.
With Porter gone, the Steelers can go in any number of directions at linebacker. Three-four middle linebacker James Farrior could be moved to the outside in the 4-3 -- the same position he played with the Jets early in his career. Farrior would replace Clark Haggans, who could serve as a situational pass rusher. He is in the last year of his contract, and frankly, he is on the downside of his career. Last season, Haggans struggled to get off blocks and was inconsistent in coverage. James Harrison would replace Porter as the right outside linebacker and Larry Foote, the former Big Ten defensive player of the year, would man the middle linebacker position. Rian Wallace, Arnold Harrison and Haggans would serve as backups. A unit that was woefully undermanned just a few days ago now, thanks to a new scheme, has some much-needed depth … and there is still the NFL draft.
Aaron Smith's new contract offers more proof Tomlin is seriously considering a defensive realignment. If Porter, instead of Smith, had gotten the long-term extension, it would have indicated Tomlin's willingness to stick with the 3-4 indefinitely. Porter is the prototypical 3-4 outside linebacker -- big, agile, a one-time ability to beat blocks -- but those talents would not have translated well to the Cover-2. Smith, on the other hand, can play anywhere on the defensive line, no matter the front. In the four-man scenario, Smith and Casey Hampton could play defensive tackle, and Brett Keisel and Travis Kirshke could play defensive end. Or, more likely, Keisel and Smith would man the end positions -- just like in the 4-3 -- and Hoke and Hampton would move inside.
Rumors have Pittsburgh interested in free agent defensive end Patrick Kerney, which lends further credence to the 4-3 speculation. Such a free-agent signing would also mean the organization isn't pigeonholed into take a defensive end or linebacker with their first-round pick. Instead, the Steelers can draft their board with no glaring need at any one position.
Okay, if you have made this far down the page without throwing your computer against a brick wall in exasperation, then give yourself a golf clap. I'm sure it must've been frustrating as hell, but just know that I don't believe any of what I wrote above. It was just my not-so-clever way of mocking how the internet-driven media-rumor-mill can sometimes mimic a runaway train … engineered by a bunch of lemmings. And not the smart one, either.
Last Sunday -- that's six days ago -- Jim Wexell wrote these words here and for the Tribune-Democrat:
A source with the Steelers made the admission that, yes, the Steelers are sticking with their 3-4 defense, even though their new coach, Tomlin, is an avowed Cover 2 devotee.
And that's the last anybody heard of it. We have read plenty of "Mike Tomlin still hasn't said publicly if the team will move the 4-3" columns, but, oddly, that's it. I've been doing my part to get the word out, but like I told my buddy Andy the other day, we will all find out soon enough … and then end up reading countless articles telling us about something we've known for a while. Yeah, it's surprising to learn traditional newspapers are losing money like Pac-Man Jones at a Vegas strip club. Shocking, really.
[getting off soapbox]
So, now what? Now that Joey Porter is no longer a Pittsburgh Steeler, who is going to lead this defense? Who is going to take up the pre-game midfield smack-talking mantle? Who is going to ask the world, "Who Ride?"
Honestly, I was surprised to gauge the message board responses after Porter's release … surprised in a good way. I'd heard on countless prior occasions that Porter was "over the hill," and a "loud-mouthed jerk," and the variations thereof. But most of the fan reactions on Friday were positive. Don't misunderstand, I love Joey Porter, but I was legitimately amazed by all the laudatory comments. Of course, not everybody was upset by the loss, and in fact, some welcomed it. That's fine -- there's nothing wrong with that view, I just think it's short-sighted.
Economically, I understand why the Steelers made the move; I don't necessarily agree with it, though. Say what you want about Porter's diminishing skills, but let me ask you this: What would your reaction be if he signed a big-money deal with New England? I imagine you'd be less than happy about the prospect of Bill Belichick getting to squeeze every remaining ounce of talent out of Porter for the next four or five seasons. And in 2012, when Porter retires with two more Super Bowl rings, I'm guessing you will achieve a whole new level of unhappiness. I'd wager we'd all be subjected to some form of "WHY DID THE STEELERS RELEASE THIS GUY! WE COULD'VE WON AT LEAST TWO MORE SUPER BOWLS IF THE ROONEY'S WEREN'T SO CHEAP!!" rants where even the most myopic Steelers fan enjoys 20/20 hindsight.
The good news, I guess, is that it doesn't look like Belichick will get a chance to use his Revitalizing Machine on another former Steelers player; the Patriots signed Adalius Thomas Friday night.
I will miss Porter, his energy, his Huckleberry references and his surly game day demeanor. He personified Pittsburgh Steelers linebackers and I can't imagine him wearing anything but black and gold. As spring approaches I'm reminded of rebirth and all that other new agey crap, which is an analogy for the start of another football season … another football season that, inevitably, brings change -- some good, some not so much. Obviously, for me, Porter falls under "not so much," but the draft offers new opportunities and challenges … and now I'm starting to sound like Oprah.
Let me put it this way: I'm excited by the idea of finding a stud defensive end/outside linebacker in the first few rounds of the draft (keeping fingers crossed for no Alonzo Jackson second-round stink bombs). I assume a tweener now becomes a first-round necessity with Porter's departure, and Max Starks' one-year tender. In a sense, a Steelers season without Porter will be akin to going to a favorite restaurant you and your girlfriend shared … except now, you are no longer together (it's complicated). It will be weird at first -- a lot of "what ifs" during the September games -- but like most things, you'll get over it, move on, and find a new girlfriend. You know, art imitating life and whatnot.
By Ryan Wilson
Posted Mar 3, 2007