Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Decline of the Steelers Defense: Is Dick LeBeau to Blame or the Personnel?

Contributing writer, Larry Sayre

I know that some will be curious at first about the title and theme of an article about the No. 1 ranked defense in the NFL in 2011.

It's true, though. There are noticeable chinks in the armor of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. There were signs of rust in the Steel Curtain that could be seen as far back as 2008, but definite corrosion had set in starting in 2010.

I know the arguments: the 2008, 2010 and 2011 teams were all 12-4 and had the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 1 ranked defenses. Two of those were Super Bowl teams, including a Super Bowl winner. Though they lost in the first game of last season's playoffs, it can be argued that the loss of five starters to injury or ailment, not to mention a hobbled quarterback, were key reasons for that loss.

Mark Twain is credited with the quote: "There are three types of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics. And those stats have lied, to some degree, with the Steelers defense of late.

The poor performance we saw in Sunday's loss to the Oakland Raiders prove some numbers don't lie, though. Meaning the numbers of missed sacks, missed tackles and the many missed assignments. The defensive players talked about some of these after the game. -

Ryan Clark said the lack of performance "wasn't from a lack of trying." LaMarr Woodley admitted that they got pressure a few times, but that it wasn't enough. The Steelers did actually have nine pressures, along with Woodley's sack, against the Raiders, with Foote and Keisel leading the way with three each. Like Woodley said, though, it wasn't enough.

It isn't enough when the Seattle Seahawks recorded nine sacks, not pressures, sacks, against the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football. In fact, the Seahawks had more sacks in the first half of that game than the Steelers have in three full games this season (8-5).

That used to be the Steelers forte: a rock-hard, fearsome defense that punished quarterbacks, and teams in general, when they faced the Men of Steel. They led the league or were top three in the league in sacks six times in the 10 years from 2001-2010:
2001 .................. 55
2002 .................. 50
2003 .................. 35
2004 .................. 41
2005 .................. 47
2006 .................. 39
2007 .................. 36
2008 .................. 51
2009 .................. 47
2010 .................. 48

That's the crux of this article: the defense isn't feared as it has been even in the recent past, nor does it cause the chaotic confusion it once did. A confusion that is the driving force behind the 3-4 scheme defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau uses. Raiders wide receiver Derek Hagan even said the Steelers were doing pretty much the "same thing they did six, seven years ago..." Carson Palmer all but said as much as well. -

This begs the question then: Is it execution of the personnel, quality of personnel or is it just time for a change in coordinators?

Look, it hurts to even ask the third part of that question, let alone write an article on it. LeBeau is tremendously respected and is one of the best all time at what he does. Few have achieved more in football than Dick LeBeau, as a player, as a coach and as a man. Who doesn't love Coach Dad?

Still, it's a subject that needs to be addressed based on what has been seen in the three games this season, on how last season ended and on how certain trends have developed. The word "predictable" has now even been used in connection with Lebeau and his schemes. -

First of all, be honest, did you see any real adjustments on Sunday to what Palmer and the Raiders offense were doing in the second half?

Considering the defense hadn't gotten any significant pressure from a four-man front before, was there any sense in rushing only four on third-and-10 late in the game?

We've questioned Lawrence Timmons' play in previous articles and ask now if there was any logic to what he was doing all day. We didn't see any creative ways to get a pass rush off the right side from Chris Carter or Jason Worilds. (I checked the tape, they were actually there.) Nor did we see much of anything from the middle, such as the crossfire blitz we suggested in the Raiders preview blog. Did you?

There is other evidence. Let's go back a ways, though, in order to see the genesis of it more clearly.

Everyone remembers the same big plays from Super Bowl 43: James Harrison's Super Bowl record 100-yard interception return and the 82-yard (really 92) drive that ended with the Immaculate Reception II. If you also remember, it was Woodley's strip sack that ended SB 43 and saved the game after a near collapse that started late in the second half after a 20-7 lead.

There were signs even in that game, though, of the issues regarding LeBeau's tendencies.

To be as succinct as possible regarding the game, Arizona had about 15 yards of total offense after the first quarter. They had about 127 yards of offense in the second, most of which came on one drive. They had about a 142 yards in total offense in the first half, 91 came on one drive. Only seven points were given up in the first half. The defense had done an outstanding job to that point.

The 11:30 mark of the 4th is when it went downhill fast. If I remember correctly that is when we started to drop the safeties back, giving a much bigger cushion. Troy Polamalu was rolling over into coverage on Larry Fitzgerald. Polamalu's playing deeper allowed Fitzgerald to get open underneath. It allowed the Cardinals to get momentum and confidence.

That was evidenced by the go ahead touchdown to Fitzgerald when both safeties were very deep. This is an example of what can be bothersome with LeBeau.

The Steelers had been executing a great game plan. Why call off the dogs? Why change what was working? It almost cost the Steelers a Lombardi.

We don't look at the 2009 season itself as an indictment considering that the special teams unit surrendered so many returns that influenced games that year. Nonetheless, the bend-but-don't-break defensive philosophy LeBeau tends to employ late in games, the calling off of the dogs mentality, often comes too quickly. It allows the other team's offense to gain confidence and get into a groove.

It was still seen enough times in '09 to mention it, nonetheless, the Chiefs and Raiders games to name a couple. Though, many times they had been playing very well up to that point, LeBeau started playing passive in those situations which resulted in losses. They basically played to protect a lead, not to plunge the dagger deeper and win.

Super Bowl 45 is obviously on the list of example, but was a little different. It wasn't so much a collapse as it was the Green Bay Packers just exploiting a weak secondary all game. Most Steelers fans knew that would be an issue and it was. It could have been worse, actually. The Packers receivers dropped several balls, including a few that would have been big gains.

What was most bothersome, though, was after the Steelers had stormed back and made it a 28-25 ball game with just over seven minutes left, the defense gave up a huge clock killing field goal drive. The Steelers didn't get the ball back till the 2:07 mark. The defense just couldn't get off the field. Like they couldn't Sunday against the Raiders.

Two straight Steelers' Super Bowls where the defense does not show up late in the fourth quarter when needed most.

Especially now with this last example being presented, was this completely a coaching/scheme issue? Could it be instead a personnel or execution problem? After all, LeBeau has shown the ability to change his attack given the circumstances, as was evidenced in the New England Patriots game last year in 2011. And no one is going to present an argument convincing enough to make believable that LeBeau suddenly forgot how to run a defense.

So we don't think LeBeau necessarily needs to be replaced. He simply needs to get out of this comfort zone, especially at the end of ballgames. His defense was No. 1 in total defense/yards per game at 282.1, in passing yards at 180.4, in passing yards per attempt at 5.6 and in points per game at 15.1. Excellent!

That leads us to the execution of the schemes by the players on the whole.

Without a healthy James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley together most of the year, though, the pass rush was hindered. As has been seen, it hindered the secondary tremendously. Consistent pressure leads to creating more turnovers. Two things the Steelers have severely lacked of late.

Such players as Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen seemed to emerge. Tez was a big part of the success in the aforementioned Patriots game. He locked down on their tight ends, Gronkowski specifically. Ike Taylor had a very good year as well.

They haven't been stellar this year, though. The Steelers haven't had a true lockdown cornerback since Rod Woodson, nor as elite a corner/safety combination since Woodson and Carnell Lake. All due respect to Ike, he is NOT an elite cornerback. And the youth of Lewis, Tez and Curtis Brown have yet to truly distinguish themselves and give Steeler Nation that warm and fuzzy feeling.

The pass defense is something that can be helped with the return of a healthy Polamalu. Helped, not fixed. -

Neither have the youth in the linebacking corps. Worilds, Carter and, to a lesser degree, Stevenson Sylvester haven't yet emerged as a replacement for the aging James Harrison and the retired James Farrior. A linebacking corps that was responsible for allowing 99.8 rushing yards per game last season (only No. 8 last season) and 4.0 yards per attempt (No. 9 last season).

This season has been no different. In some ways it's actually worse. Though, we may see Sylvester after the bye against the Philadelphia Eagles, we won't see Harrison. -

Certain cognoscenti even have suggested or surmised that Harrison might even be put on IR. Either way, we shouldn't see him before the Tennessee Titans game. That way he'd have a built-in bye week to see if the knee will have been able to respond after actual game time.

If either of two of the last four NFL Defensive Players of the Year returns the defense will be helped. Again though, helped, not fixed. It needs more. To quote Lance Williams of Steel Curtain Radio, the young guys have to become the guys.

The Steelers historically have always been great against the run. Not lately, though. They need help at inside linebacker also. This is where the loss of one of those young guys, Sean Spence, to IR really hurts. Hurts more than the loss of guard David DeCastro. A lot more. Spence was the draft pick who was brought in to be the hybrid linebacker, the one who could rush, tackle as well as cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. Not immediately, but as the season went along he was expected to contribute.

Pointedly, there are two obvious differences from years past to now that smack directly at those linebackers: (1) they are giving away pre-snap reads on blitzes, as alluded to in the Carson Palmer article by Mark Kaboly. And (2) they don't seem to audible out of defensive alignments or assignments as in the past. Like we've written several times this season already, they're caught out of position too often.

Sylvester will be back soon and should help in this area. Spence won't. It hurts a lot more.

Lastly, if it is the players, are they simply not of the caliber that Steeler Nation is used to seeing? Kevin Colbert is known for having a keen eye for talent, but no one is perfect. It's at least feasible that the majority of this crop of talent is that in name only.

If that is the case, it might behoove LeBeau and company to borrow from Art Rooney II and "tweak" things some. Maybe try some defensive changes that suit the personnel. Persuade LeBeau to use more 4-3 (Woodley did play defensive end at Michigan after all) or 4-2-5 alignments. It isn't as if the 3-4 doesn't work, as the Arizona Cardinals under former Steelers assistant Ray Horton, use it quite effectively. They have the players for it, though.

As an extra element to consider regarding the 3-4, the Chicago Bears are the absolute last team to never have used it in some form. With so many teams using it part-time or as their base defense, the element of surprise or at least unfamiliararity is gone. For a deeper look at it, please review an article we wrote on it last year. -

That being the case, use Steve McLendon to attack more - Hampton clearly isn't getting it done as it is. Use Cameron Heyward more as well to help spell Brett Keisel and to get more comfortable with the defense and more experience in it. The standard is supposed to be the standard, right?

The point is that they need to either be more flexible with their schemes, LeBeau's defense is very complex as it is, draft better players or execute better. The first among those would seem to be execution. -

All things considered, the Steelers defense isn't doomed for the doldrums of the NFL anytime soon. The issues they have are not truly problems yet, especially with two, possibly three, players coming back in the next few weeks. They will, though, be forced to find some way to at most instill that fear once again or at least slow down their opponents when it counts most. Neither of which they have been able to do in a long time.