Saturday, January 26, 2013

The 2012 Steelers - All The King's Horses..., pt. 2: Defense

They had a great fall...
It was week six against the Tennessee Titans game, and an eight-minute stretch in the fourth quarter played out as a microcosm of Pittsburgh Steelers' season on defense:

A crossfire blitz that couldn't get to quarterback Matt Hasselbeck...
A dropped interception by cornerback Keenan Lewis that could have ended the touchdown-tying drive...
And minutes later on the next drive, James Harrison is beaten on a shallow-cross drag route by tight end Jared Cook for 25 yards to set up the game-winning field goal.

A macrocosm analysis of the Pittsburgh Steelers' 2012 roster and season reveals more missed plays than playmakers, more wallowing in the shallow end than big splash plays and ultimately more questions than answers.

The 2012 Steelers defense was ranked No. 1 again, but, similar to 2011, it was a bit misleading. It was a very good defense to be sure, but it lacked the playmakers, youthful savagery and dominance of recent years.

As mentioned in a previous post, for the second straight year, the Steelers defense hobbled their way to the quarterback, taking down the opposing passer only 37 times.

As Lance Williams of Steel Curtain Radio further explains, "the real issue is not just sacks alone, it's when you get sacks. I've learned that you have to put teams in bad down-and-distances consistently to get sacks. That means you have to play good defense on first down. Look at the Steelers sack woes over the years, third and long was the killer."

Very accurate. Also, along with the lack of pressure, they paralleled that by only forcing 20 turnovers, with their 10 interceptions being a tie for the second fewest in the team's 80-year history, and that just does not cut it.

As points of comparison, the Cincinnati Bengals' defense was ranked sixth in 2012 and had 46 sacks and recorded 26 turnovers. They made the playoffs. The Baltimore Ravens, AFC North winners and AFC Champions, forced 33 turnovers. The need for playmakers who'll bring about the much-needed splash and explosive plays is obvious.

Two of the Steelers playmakers usually responsible for those types of plays spoke after the season ended about their absence.

“That‘s what was hard for me - I wasn't healthy all year....What‘s nice about it is I‘ll go into the offseason on the rise and continue to get better, get in better shape and be more prepared for next year," Troy Polamalu said.

“It took a little while to get my knee back to where it needed to be, and it‘s still not there,” Harrison said. “But now I‘ll have the time to rehab it properly and get it back to 100 percent and get back to training the way I‘m used to training.” -

While it's good to know that Polamalu and Harrison are healthier and set for a productive offseason, next season isn't assured. Their comments, though, are reflective of other problems the Steelers defense had this season.

The Rusty Curtain:
Polamalu, who turns 32 in April, missed nine games in 2012 with a calf injury. Harrison, who had knee surgery last summer after being hindered by back problems prior to that, turns 35 in May. Those aren't the only ones, either.

Nose tackle Casey Hampton will be 36 at the start of next season, Brett Keisel will be 35, and Larry Foote, Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor will be 33.

The Steelers defensive is now in a state of flux and it isn't known who will stay and who will seek greener (monetarily speaking) pastures. The first element of that to consider is the defensive line, which is, or at least should be, the core of any defense. And as Alan Robinson of Trib Total Media pointed out, with a 3-4 defensive alignment, that's especially so. -

As Robinson made clear, the Steelers "use their defensive line to clog the middle, slow the run and create rush lanes for their outside linebackers," but age and inconsistent play from all of the front seven prevented that from happening and from delivering results when absolutely needing it.

As alluded to earlier, the defensive line will undergo a transition this offseason. Hampton most likely leaves and Steve McLendon would replace him. We've made enough noise regarding McLendon this season - from draft day all throughout the season. Whether in actual blog articles or in Twitter and Facebook posts, we've called for McLendon to take a big bite out of Big Snack's playing time. So we'll allow make the case for him this time:

If Keisel stays, he could probably have another strong season at right end, but what of his successor? Cameron Heyward, as Robinson showed in his article, looks ready to step in once Da Beard gets the follicle outta town. But Ziggy Hood, on the other hand, is an 'enigma.' He just has not lived up to the expectations that come with being a No. 1 draft pick. Yes, he's strong, but not consistent. We spoke specifically about this before the season, but received the same lackluster results. -

To draw from the Robinson piece again, though Heyward's and Hood's stats were similar, Hood "was on the field for more than three times as many snaps (833) as Heyward (267). In fact, "Hood was, by far, the league’s worst-rated pass-rushing defensive end."

Outside linebackers Harrison and LaMarr Woodley combined for only 10 sacks this season - at least half of what they normally provide. Injury issues slowed one and injury and weight issues slowed the other for much of the season. As a result, the Steelers failed to generate a consistent pass rush.

Lawrence Timmons and Foote stepped up their play and had good-to-very-good seasons. Timmons had 106 tackles, six sacks, three interceptions (one for a touchdown) and two forced fumbles. Four of those sacks and one of the forced fumbles, though, came in the last two games.

Foote led the team in tackles with 113 and had four sacks and two forced fumbles. Both failed, however, to be consistent throughout the entirety of the season.

As for the secondary, it was the strength of the defense, being No. 1 against the pass. Few interceptions were still a concern, though, and the late-season absence of Ike Taylor hurt them. They do have youth in their ranks and should continue to get better.

However, the safeties are a different story. Clark had 102 tackles and was again a reliable player. But age is age, and he and Polamalu are elder statesmen in this league. Will Allen stepped up and played adequately, but Ryan Mundy is the only other safety with any experience. Change must come.

That said, with no viable or proven backups beyond the players cited, the Kevin Colbert must find the youth and talent necessary to be the immovable objects and depth the Steelers sorely need.

To help quantify the lack of dominance factor and how numbers can be deceiving, consider this: the Steelers defense, when compared to the rest of the NFL's top five defenses, faced the fewest scrimmage plays with only 951. That's 70 fewer than the team with the most in the top five, the Denver Broncos, at 1,021.

Conversely, though, the Steelers allowed more points per game (1.5 more) than any defense in the top five at 19.6 PPG. It had been suggested by some this season, including If It Ain't Steel, that the Steelers defense was aided by the third down conversion proficiency and time of possession by the offense, especially in the first two-thirds of the season. This seemingly is evidence to that possibly being true.

Consider this also: Remember the goal-line stand in the 2008 game against the New York Giants? Big running back Brandon Jacobs was stymied for no gain and the Giants had to settle for a field goal. A truly strong defensive line and defense in general provided a stop when needed. It's the type of play head coach Mike Tomlin means when he refers to "situational football."

Was their any consistent feeling or belief that this defense had the ability to duplicate that this season?

We've mentioned players who could help provide the playmaking ability, youth and savagery needed to get back to where they once were. Ziggy Ansah is on the short list of such players. There are others who might fill in at needed positions via free agency, like a Rey Maualuga or a Darrelle Revis. Not to mention the players the Steelers will get back from Injured Reserve, as in inside linebacker Sean Spence.

But this no quick fix. It may not even be a one-season turnaround. There are more questions than answers, to say the least. Questions that one can only hope is answered adequately enough to allow all the king's men to put the Steelers back together in time for a playoff-certain 2013 campaign.