In his ten-year tenure of running the Pittsburgh Steelers defense, former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has done one thing very well, among the many to choose from, and that’s terrorize young quarterbacks, as he compiled a 51-18 record against quarterbacks making their first start against his defense. While LeBeau has moved on, the majority of the chess pieces of his defense remain, minus a few players like retired Jason Worilds, Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu and Brice McCain, who signed with Miami.
Now under the guidance of new defensive coordinator and longtime linebackers coach, Keith Butler, the defense looks to large run the same principles of their base 3-4, while also showing more sub-package looks out of a more traditional 4-3 alignment. It remains to be seen exactly what wrinkles Butler will add to it, but we’re not the only ones who are being kept on our toes. There’s a certain quarterback in New England, who barring some miraculous rescue of Tom Brady by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, will be under center making his first career start in Week 1 and his name is Jimmy Garoppolo.
However, if last year was any type of indicator, the team had better not sleep on him, considering they lost a handful of games to teams that had no business beating them, and who were led by inexperienced quarterbacks. Names like Brian Hoyer and Mike Glennon were some of the blemishes on the team’s 2014 schedule that could’ve made the difference between their 11-5 record or a 12-4 or 13-3 one, and a first-round bye.
It’s certainly a situation that likely has the Steeler’s defense licking their chops, going up against a former FCS quarterback making his first career start in a primetime game to kick off the NFL season, that other than the Super Bowl, may be the most watched game of the year.
The 6-foot-2, 225-pounder out of Eastern Illinois got a little bit of mop-up time in the Pats’ 14-41 drubbing at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 4 last season, going 6 for 7 for 70 yards and a touchdown. However, that was against the second and third-string defense of Kansas City, not Justin Houston, Dontari Poe or Tamba Hali. Making matters worse, he’ll face Pittsburgh behind an offensive line that, according to Pro Football Focus, ranked as the fourth-worst pass blocking unit in football. It was only masked to look better by the quick and accurate release of Brady.
Essentially, it’ll come down to how fast the Steelers’ pass rush can get in the face of and rattle the youngster. Garoppolo’s best friend in the contest will undoubtedly be his gigantic security blanket, tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The last time these teams battled in 2013, the Steelers’ defense was absolutely torched by Brady and who else led the way but Gronkowski with 9 grabs for 143 yards and a score in the team’s 55-31 blowout win. He’s as tough an assignment as they come, and the Steelers will have to bracket him underneath and hold him to around 6 or so catches.
There’s not really a way to slow down or totally eliminate the “Gronk” but if the Steelers edge rushers can create havoc up front, they could force the young quarterback into rushing some throws and making some key errors. And without cornerback Ike Taylor’s stone hands, perhaps the defense will actually record some interceptions on the stat sheet. Because if they allow him to sit back there and get comfortable, it’s not only going to be a long day, but a long season as we all sit back and watch our worst fears of the secondary become a reality.