For the vast majority of Dick LeBeau’s tenure as the defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the franchise was routinely able to field a top five defense, often even finishing at the top of the league in the majority of the most vital defensive statistics.
Many have cited LeBeau’s complex defensive schemes—and the available personnel with the ability to run said scheme—for that success. Former signal callers James Farrior and Larry Foote have both said that they were still learning the defense by the time their time in Pittsburgh was up.
While his scheme no doubt contributed greatly to the team’s defensive success over the years, however, it’s also true that the front office was able to give him a roster of quality players that could execute it with efficiency.
Much of that personnel was lucked into in one way or another, but the fact is that through the heyday of the Steelers’ defense in the 21st century, LeBeau’s units had the luxury of relying on experienced, veteran players that he was able to trust to run his system the way he intended.
That system was widely regarded as unfriendly to rookies, and it’s true that few young players have found much success operating within it. Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley played some. Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas saw limited snaps as rookies.
The two most recent rookie starters, Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier, were eventually demoted by the end of their rookie seasons, though both were limited by injury. Of course, Stephon Tuitt was in the starting lineup by the end of the year.
The question that many are asking now is whether or not Keith Butler’s system will be any more conducive to success for rookie players, and whether or not they will be given the playing time.
The truth is that the talent level of the current roster itself makes it far more conducive to rookie success, just by virtue of there being legitimate openings that have not been there in the past. And if your best candidate to start is a rookie, then you do the smart thing and make things simpler for him.
One could argue, citing, for example, Cam Thomas over Tuitt for three quarters of the season, that LeBeau had a legitimate reluctance to start rookies when at all possible, and there may be some truth to that. Perhaps there is even some truth to the suggestion that that played a role in the Steelers looking to move on.
But it stands to reason that the team is indeed looking for greater contributions from rookies this year, regardless of who is calling the plays. Unless the Steelers draft an inside linebacker in the first round, for example, I can’t imagine a defensive player not getting a healthy number of snaps in 2015.
Certainly if the number one overall pick ends up being an outside linebacker or a cornerback a little over a month from now, he is going to get on the field, barring an unforeseen disappointment. The fact of the matter is that there’s not enough talent on the roster to keep him off the field, and they don’t appear to be looking to add to that talent much more via free agency.