Does Dick LeBeau Still Have His Fastball?

By David Todd

The question has been asked often this year. The Steelers have given up fourth quarter leads in four of six games, so it comes with the territory. Everyone knows Dick LeBeau is a Hall-of-Famer, a defensive genius, but the NFL is the ultimate What-Have-You-Done-For-Me-Lately league. A HOF bust doesn’t supersede last week’s results.

The personnel changes, the schemes change, the game changes.

Often times Dick LeBeau has been at the forefront of change, most notably his implementation of the zone blitz, which has defined modern defense. Under his tutelage the Steelers have consistently ranked among the best in the game. On rare occasions he’s been behind the curve, trying to figure out the latest offensive wrinkle–multiple receivers flooding a zone, two tights ends splitting the deep seam–but ultimately LeBeau has emerged to reassert his prowess.

This year there have been chinks in the Steelers’ defensive armor. Injuries have played a role. Troy Polamalu has worn a hoodie more often than a helmet. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley were on the field together for an entire game for the first time just last week. Performance has waned as well. Ike Taylor was bad enough the first five weeks there were calls for him to be benched. The defensive line went games without being noticed. Pressure in Pittsburgh was being measured by a barometer as opposed to QB sacks.

But there were also bad schemes. In week 1 the Steelers had no answer to Peyton Manning’s no-huddle offense. He was able to read the defense from the line of scrimmage and audible at will, most-notably into a wide receiver screen to DeMaryius Thomas that went for a 71-yard touchdown. There was no disguise, no sugaring of the coverages. In Oakland Carson Palmer knew exactly what he was seeing having started against a LeBeau defense 12 times. In the first half the defense tipped a blitz and Palmer audibled to a run that went 64 yards for a touchdown. In the second half he led the Raiders on five drives: TD, TD, TD, FG, Game-Winning FG. In Nashville the Steelers often looked confused, and on the game’s biggest play, an obvious passing situation, James Harrison was left to cover a tight end on a crossing route. 25 yards later the Titans were set up for the game-winning field goal.

Player performance and coaching schemes are the hand and the glove. The coach’s job is to put players in roles and schemes were they can succeed. The players’ job is to execute. While the Steelers defense again ranks among the league’s best, the numbers have largely been misleading–until last week.

After getting run over on Cincinnati’s first drive of the game, the Steelers held the Bengals to 105 total yards and 10 points, seven resulting from a turnover deep in their own territory, the rest of the game. Dick LeBeau made adjustments. He used the dime defense for the first time all season. He gave Ike Taylor deep safety help on All-World wideout A.J. Green and he modified the fire-X blitz to get consistent pressure up the middle. Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden had no answer, Andy Dalton looked confused and A.J. Green was held to one catch. Checkmate.

This Sunday provides another test, one that football fans across the country will be watching closely. Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins come to Heinz Field. RG III has been nothing short of sensational, quickly become a dominant force and the league’s most talked-about player. His stats are ridiculous. He is first in the league in completion percentage and third in passer rating. He is 12th in rushing and first in yards/attempt. An article in today’s Washington Post suggests he isn’t even close to reaching his potential. The New York Giants beat the Redskins last week but showered unheard of praise on the rookie.

Mike Shanahan deserves a ton of credit for devising game plans (subscription) that have maximized RGIII’s talents and given him a great opportunity to be successful. It starts with a running game that has amassed at least 100 yards in 13 straight games behind its zone-blocking scheme and Griffin’s exceptional ability to sell play-action.

How does Dick LeBeau counteract this multi-dimensional offense that has put up at least 23 points in all but one game this season? Obviously there isn’t a simple answer, but Griffin is a rookie with only seven games of NFL experience. Dick Lebeau is 14-1 against rookie QBs, holding them to 11.4 points per game, a 52.3% completion percentage and a 60.4 passer rating and this will be the first time RGIII has played against a 3-4 defense in the pros. Scheming and confusing, a hallmark of LeBeau in years past, is paramount.

RGIII’s running statistics probably reveal another key for the Steelers to be successful. So far this year Griffin has run by design 38 times and has scrambled 20 times. On those scrambles he’s made it out of bounds 17 or 20 times. On the designed runs he’s made it out just 8 or 38 times. He has already been knocked out of one game with a concussion and is being much more cautious in his last few starts not to take unnecessary hits. The Steelers need to key on him, possibly with Lawrence Timmons as a spy similar to a role he appeared to play against Michael Vick earlier in the season, and hit him every time he runs. This tactic was used somewhat successfully by both Cincinnati and Atlanta earlier this year.

In addition, only 15 of RGIII’s 189 pass attempts (7.9%) have been for 20+ yards down the field. While the Skins offense has big play ability, it is more likely to come with RAC yardage. In addition, this week they will be without Griffin’s favorite target tight end Fred Davis, out for the season with an achilles tear, and offseason free agent-signing Pierre Garcon. Outside of RGIII this Skins lack explosive playmakers.

All this would suggest the Steelers walk a safety down into the box and look to contain RGIII on the edge, daring him to beat them deep with a single safety over the top and press coverage on the wideouts. This would also limit the safe, between-the-hashmarks throws that have led to Griffin’s 70% completion percentage.

The concern for Pittsburgh is the corners, particularly Taylor, have been burned repeatedly when isolated and the defense also lacks speed at the safety position. The Steelers were burned badly by a much-less accomplished quarterback in Tim Tebow the last time they resorted to that type of scheme, so will they be willing to use it against a much better passer in RGIII? It’s a great challenge for Dick LeBeau and the Steelers defense and should make for a fascinating game this weekend.

Can Dick LeBeau scheme, confuse and contain Robert Griffin III? Does LeBeau still have his fastball? We should have a pretty good answer Sunday around 4:15.

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Originally posted here on ESPN 970 & reprinted with permission.

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