While the amicable resignation of Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau took many by surprise at the time it was revealed, hindsight has allowed this course of action to sink in with a more cogent rationale as time passes.
LeBeau, 77, had presided over the two worst defenses that he has put on the field as the defensive coordinator of the Steelers over the past two seasons. Of course, much of that paralleled a depletion in the talent level of the team on the defensive side of the ball, a process that continues to take place.
Nevertheless, when the defense finishes outside of the top 10 for two consecutive seasons, with this past season seeing it slip into the bottom half of the league, one can see why head coach Mike Tomlin and the organization might want to begin exploring alternative avenues of fixing the problem.
While it’s not fair to say that LeBeau had become, or was ever, rigid in his defensive philosophy—seemingly every season saw him experimenting with fresh wrinkles in his tried and true schemes, after all—there are some characteristics of his defensive philosophy that, perhaps, was no longer valued as much as the Steelers look to right the ship.
One of those elements, which comes as a part of LeBeau’s zone blitz system, has long been a point of discussion, at times even among the players running the system, and among media members addressing these players.
The topic in question is regarding the 3-4 system’s premiere pass rushers, the outside linebackers. In LeBeau’s system, the outside linebackers typically have an uncharacteristically significant role in pass coverage, in comparison to other defenses who employ the 3-4.
We have observed over the years that the Steelers’ outside linebackers typically rush the passer on passing downs with less frequency than the majority, and average, of other 3-4 outside linebackers, and that continued to hold true this past season.
Jason Worilds, for example, rushed the passer only on 71.4 percent of passing downs, according to Pro Football Focus, which ranked 36th among 47 outside linebackers. There were nine linebackers who rushed the passer better than nine times out of 10.
Interestingly, James Harrison and Jarvis Jones recorded the highest percentage of pass rushes on passing downs for the Steelers this year, both coming up just a hair beneath 79 percent. This is due to the fact that, at various points during the season, they were used primarily in passing situations as rushers, and is not characteristic of the snaps they would normally play. Harrison rushed the passer 62.5 percent of the time during his Defensive MVP 2008 season.
Perhaps the Steelers believe that linebackers coach Keith Butler is willing to take on a more aggressive approach with his pass rushers in passing situations. The defense has struggled to record sacks or maintain consistent pressure over the last few seasons, and they can no longer afford to drop their best pass rushers into coverage so often.