By Michael K. Reynolds
Is there anyone still out there who still believes the Pittsburgh Steelers have a dominant defense?
So far this preseason they looked poor against the New York Giants, fared only slightly better against the Buffalo Bills and got completely demolished by Philadelphia Eagles.
Do we really believe the problem is that they are playing “vanilla” and the only issue is they have yet to unleash their “exotic” blitzes?
Here’s one vote for pulling our heads out of the sand, taking a reality pill and making some needed adjustment. The good news is there is talent on the roster. It’s mostly an adjustment of attitude and emphasis. Here are the whys and wheres of the defensive collapse and a suggested strategy on how to fix it.
Why The Defense is Broke: LeBeau Chased After the Great White Whale
Hall of Fame coach and player Dick LeBeau has accomplished more in his career in the NFL than a thousand others could ever hoped. But there has been a nemesis who has often got the best of his vaunted defenses. The combination of coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady has been Moby Dick to LeBeau through the years. Just as Captain Ahab approached madness in the novel in pursing the whale could it be that LeBeau’s hope of consistently beating the Patriots caused him to do the unthinkable—deconstruct his top-ranking defense? Was this radical restructuring of the defensive philosophy an overcorrection or as they claim, the wave of the future? The last two seasons and this preseason thus far may indicate this wave is not effective.
Here’s Where It’s Broken: The Abandonment of the 3rd and 8 Strategy
The key to the Steelers great defenses of the recent past was their ability to force 3rd and 8’s from opposing offenses. This allowed the defense to pin its ears and sell out to the pass. How they got 3rd and 8’s was the absolute refusal to give up any yards on the ground on first or second downs. Regardless of whether offenses went with two tight ends and a fullback they couldn’t penetrate the steel curtain.
Unfortunately, with the current makeup and defensive scheme of the Steelers they are incapable of holding the point. It comes down to simple physics. If you put two defensive lineman up against five offensive linemen you’re going to end up in the wash. If you do put a third defensive lineman on the field at the nose (and limit your coverage ability) he has to be able to dominate and control the middle. And if you go 3-4 as opposed to 4-3 your outside linebackers need to seal the edges.
Here’s where we’re broken:
- A heavy reliance on sub-packages with only two defensive linemen. It doesn’t matter how promising the talent is in Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward, it’s too much to ask for them to control the line on their own.
- Steve McLendon (nor Cam Thomas) isn’t strong enough to hold the point when he’s on the field. For a 3-4 to work, the nose has to dominate the center of the line.
- Jarvis Jones is unable to provide pressure, is too slow to cover fast receivers and worst of all isn’t strong enough to defend the edge.
- Like any fast, athletic linebackers, both Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons need their defensive line to protect them from offensive linemen. That isn’t happening and even Jack Lambert needed help from his defensive line.
- Our corners aren’t shutdown capable and are conceding too many easy sideline passes by playing so far back.
Here’s How We Fix the Defense: Sell Out Against the Run
The old Pittsburgh Steelers defense used to play its game the way it played and would force opposing offenses to adjust. It’s true that offenses today are more prolific than ever and are overly protected by the rules in the passing game. Completely shutting them down in both the pass and run is more challenging than ever and probably too much to expect from this current Steelers roster.
The Steelers have to pick their poison. By giving up on their run dominance, they have also surrendered their attitude of toughness and their ability to make offenses more one sided.
If they focus again on stopping the run and press tightly on receivers to slow down the short passing game they can reassert their toughness. Will the Steelers be more susceptible to the deep bomb? Yes, but at least it forces the offensive line, the quarterback and the receiver to work perfectly together to beat them.
So with that in mind, here’s how we fix what’s broken:
Forget About the Patriots – If we can dominate opposing offenses for 14 or 15 games out of the season, who cares if we look bad for one or two games? Not every team has Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. Let those be the games where Ben Roethlisberger and the emerging offense carry the load with what should be an explosive offense.
Bring Back the Other Old Guy – It may be painful to admit, but the best right side linebacker the Steelers have has been sitting on his couch. James Harrison may not be able to run any more and he may be grumpy, but he is better than anyone else we have at holding the edge. Nobody ran right against Harrison. And he won’t need Joey Porter to coach him on being tougher. Worried about his covering skills? Don’t have him cover. Could he be worse rushing the passer than Jones? No one says we should give up on Jones, but obviously he needs time to grow into the position.
Start the Mountain – Big Daniel McCullers may be as raw as an oyster but he’s playing a position which may be the easiest to master on the defense. Keep it simple. Put him in front of the center and tell him to push forward. Good things will happen. He may not get tackles and he may appear lost at times but he’ll force offensive coordinators to block him with two linemen. That alone will lift up the games of Tuitt, Heyward and even Thomas. If need be, it also allows the defensive ends to play wider to free up the outside linebackers for flex play.
Press the Corners – If our corners are going to grab and hold, have them do it within the first five yards where it’s actually legal. This will disrupt the quick passing attacks that have been plaguing the Steelers.
Have the Safeties Play Safe – To make up for the aggressive play against wide receivers, the safeties will need to use their range to clean up running holes and to help their corners. With Shazier and Timmons being kept clean and able to do their job against the run and short passing game Troy Polamalu will be free to focus on being a safety.