Sunday, July 21, 2013

The 5 Key Players To Returning Dominance To Steelers Defense

The late Al Davis famously once said about his defense, "Don’t adjust. Just dominate."

The 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers were once again tops in total defense, in yards per game and in passing yards. They were the No. 2 rushing defense, including being top three in allowing fewest runs of 20 yards or more (and even one of those was a fake punt). The problem was that they neither 'dominated,' nor did they get to the quarterback enough.

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, essentially equivalent to a full game, 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.

The defense didn't take the ball away enough, either, though. Only 20 turnovers were recorded, which was the eighth fewest in the NFL. That included only 10 interceptions. To put that in perspective, according to Steelers Digest, the Steelers picked an historic-low nine passes in the 11-game 1940 season. Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount himself had 11 in the 1975 season alone. Get the picture?

If the Steelers truly expect to get back into the playoffs next season, those are the two things that have to be reversed. Like the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Dejan Kovacevic recently wrote, "let's face this, too: The NFL's No. 1-ranked defense could be better, mathematically daunting as that sounds....And if you ask me, nothing will mean more to the Steelers than resetting some snarl to that defense, than regaining their intimidating identity." -

To that end, there are five defensive players who are key to this and to potential success of the team:

1) STEVE MCLENDON - While some may argue that the most important aspect of the 3-4 defense is being able to get the outside linebackers to pressure the quarterback, we contend that it is a nose tackle who is as hard to move as Excalibur. Therefore, the core of a successful Steelers defense is its defensive line with Steve McLendon being the cornerstone. The Steelers expect to use him in at least 60% of the snaps this season, but McLendon expects even more.

“I am going towards greatness and there is only one way to get there," said the 6'4", 320-pound McLendon, "through hard work and dedication....It's all about discipline." -

McLendon is backing up those words by working hard to fill the gargantuan shoes of Casey Hampton who had held down the position since 2001. But even Hampton has given him his stamp of approval, at one point calling McLendon a "beast" and saying he is ready to take the position as his own.

2) ZIGGY HOOD - In a defensive scheme where the linemen are asked to play a two-gap style in which they engage the guard or tackle and keep blockers off the linebackers, Ziggy Hood has not exactly been stellar. He hasn't been a washout, either, though. In fact, he has suited up for every game since being drafted, made 39 starts, including 30 in a row, is the strongest player on the team and is very durable.

The problem is that, with all his strength, Hood plays with more finesse than power. Add to that, he has erratic technique and footwork. He may need to use his strength to develop a bull-rush move to overpower tackles. Nevertheless, both are things that he is working on. And rightly so, because the clock is ticking. -

Hood won't just be playing for a big contract next season, but a contract, period. To that end, Hood is once again also working with Outer Limits Athletic Performance in Pittsburgh. He has been working on multi-directional training for practical use on the field. Because jumping 50" from a seated position is very impressive, but...when would he need to do that during a game? -

3) LAMARR WOODLEY - Anonymous teammates criticized LaMarr Woodley's weight and work ethic earlier this offseason. His response?

“It doesn’t bother me at all. They’re coming at the wrong person when they try coming at me. I don’t listen to nothing,” Woodley said.

To ask Woodley, it wasn't his weight at all, rather his injuries (hamstring and ankle) that kept him from performing. Injuries, in particular his ankle, which he says are healing fine.

But, while Woodley may be distancing himself from the anonymous pyroclastic comments for now, he will need a strong year to make them go away completely. He began process by training in Arizona at Performance Enhancement Professionals at the urging of his teammate Ryan Clark, who has himself been training there for years. Woodley won't say how much he weighs, but his position coach, Keith Butler, approves.

"Whatever he did, it appears to be right," Butler said. "The biggest thing is we've got to (do is) keep him on the field....He's working on it."

On the field and when he is laying on top of QBs. Sacks are important, but not just sacks alone, it's also when you get them. You have to put teams in bad down-and-distances early (1st & 2nd downs) consistently to get sacks. Those sacks then lead to mistakes and turnovers. Speaking of which...

4) CORTEZ ALLEN - "I think I've shown an ability to make plays in the defensive system," Cortez Allen said.

Ya think???

Tez Allen was a turnover machine at right cornerback when he replaced the injured Ike Taylor late last year. In the final two games, Tez had two interceptions, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery, making him a breakout player to watch next season. -

That kind of play from him is going to be paramount to a Steelers defense that simply hasn't been getting turnovers like they had in the past. Especially with a still very capable but aging Taylor on the other side. He and the other youth in the Steelers defensive backfield know this all too well, though, as the coaches had them working on it feverishly at OTAs and minicamp.

"We're working on it everyday, doing more ball drills, more emphasis on attacking the ball so we can do better in that category," Tez said.

5) TROY POLAMALU - The Tasmanian Devil. The Flyin' Hawaiian. The Elder Statesman. For several years now Troy Polamalu has been the face, well, maybe the hair, of the Steelers organization. When he is healthy and his body is in perfect union with his instincts, he has no equal.

So often over the years, where he went is where the Steelers defense went. We could easily throw out the stats that show the win-loss record when he isn't available, the statistical drop-off that occurs when he isn't in the lineup, etc... But we've already done that several times. The bottom line is that a healthy Polamalu means a greater chance at W's for the Steelers.

In order to assure he is healthy and can help generate those W's, he added a new physical therapist aimed at working out the scar tissue in his often-injured calf, the one that caused him so much trouble in the 2012 season. He feels good now, but he wants that to continue. -

We're coming upon the twilight of Polamalu's career and it won't be long before he takes his Head & Shoulders and gets the follicle outta Dodge. But if one more healthy season can be squeezed out of out beloved Polamalu, he just might help take the Steelers somewhere they haven't been lately - January.


TIDBITS: There are two whom we felt, for one reason or another, reasons which we will illuminate, didn't quite fit into this particular mold. Those receive honorable mention, and they are:

Cameron Heyward - As the third-year defensive end continues progressing, many feel he is doing so more slowly than he should. Heyward had similar stats to fellow DE Ziggy Hood in getting 1.5 sacks and five QB hurries - but he did it in 1/3 the snaps (only 267). So while Hood will be playing for a contract, Heyward will still be trying to establish for the first time that he is an every-down player. That said, and as Ralph Paulk of the Trib points out, Heyward "finds himself in the unenviable position of being labeled a bust if he doesn't improve on the rather pedestrian numbers he put up the past two seasons." -

Lawrence Timmons - For the exact opposite reasons, Timmons is among the honorable mentions: he's a straight up BEAST. Arguably among the top three inside linebackers in the NFL. We expect him to wreak havoc. So he has to there regardless. Whether he was in coverage, stuffing the run or rushing the QB, "Juan" is coming off a very strong season of 106 tackles, six sacks and three interceptions. Timmons is poised to become a cornerstone of the team and, as just as the team expects, he expects to be a "game-changer." -