It appears the demise of the Steelers defense was greatly exaggerated.
After Sunday’s utter domination of the New York Giants, Dick LeBeau‘s crew finds themselves the top ranked defense in the entire NFL. Not the Bears. Not the Texans. Not the Niners.
The Pittsburgh Steelers.
Does anybody else remember all the way back to one measly month ago? I know many of my readers don’t live in the Pittsburgh area so let me tell you what every other yinzer calling in to sports talk radio was saying. The defense stinks. They couldn’t stop a nose bleed. Dick LeBeau is old and the game has passed him by. Without Troy Polamalu, the defense doesn’t have enough talent to get the job done.
I admit it. I jumped aboard that bandwagon. After the Steelers blew a 23-16 lead against the wretched Titans, surrendering 10 points in the final five minutes, I started thinking maybe the only way this team can win is to run up the score on their opponents and hold on for dear life. In my defense, Ben Roethlisberger must have harbored similar feelings because Cris Collinsworth mentioned about six times that he said he wanted the offense to start closing out games instead of relying on the defense.
Ironically, it was that Sunday Night game against the Bengals where the D finally came to life. Whether Ben’s comments filtered back to them or not, they stepped up. After allowing a field goal on Cincy’s opening drive of the second half, the defense forced five straight punts to close out the game, four of which were three and outs. Granted the Bengals don’t have the greatest offense but Andy Dalton nearly out-dueled Peyton Manning this past weekend. And they do feature AJ Green, the best receiver in football, who much-maligned Ike Taylor held to one catch for 8 yards.
The next week, they did face a supposedly high powered offense. Robert Griffin III was being touted as the most fearsome offensive weapon in the league. The Redskins were coming off a heartbreaking loss to the Giants where they scored 23 points a week after dropping 38 on a solid Vikings unit. The Steelers stuffed RGIII like a three point buck and held Washington to a mere 12 points. Last Sunday, we faced the Giants and another high flying offense. If you subtract the bogus fumble recovery for a TD and the bogus personal foul on Ryan Clark that gave them 7 instead of settling for 3, the D held the G-Men to 9 points.
So dominating were the Steelers that Giants coach Tom Coughlin threw his quarterback under the bus after the game.
Can this last?
Blitzburgh is a thing of the past. Despite the overall #1 ranking, they’re only 22nd in sacks (14 total). This might be concerning except I’m starting to think the sack is the football equivalent of a save in baseball. A closer can come in with a 3 run lead, give up a two run home run and as long as he gets that third out, he’s credited with “saving” the game. Physically dragging the QB down is like a save, it’s a result that doesn’t speak to the action. Sure it would be nice to get sacks because they usually come with big losses but they’re not the be all and end all. The Steelers have been generating pressure on the QB. Forcing QBs to move around in the pocket, rushing throws, and generally disrupting their timing can all be done without registering a sack. And that’s what they’ve been doing.
Then we have Mike Tomlin‘s beloved “splash plays.” Again, the Steelers haven’t been doing well in that category. Their top ranked pass D is third from the bottom in interceptions. They have forced four fumbles which makes them about average but there is no denying the splash plays are few and far between. However, are splash plays truly an accurate measure of a good defense?
I’m not big on statistics because, as the saying goes, there are liars, damn liars, and statistics. When it comes to turnovers, stats are even more misleading. One of the great unspoken truths of the NFL is that turnovers are about 20% scheme and talent and 80% luck. When the Saints won the Super Bowl, they had the most opportunistic D in the NFL. The next year the same players ranked in the bottom third in turnovers and lost in the first round of the playoffs. The Patriots had the last ranked defense last season yet made it all the way to the Super Bowl because they got a lot of turnovers (playing teams like the Jets and Bills helps). This year they’re in the middle of the pack and as a result have had to do a lot of work to overcome a defense ranked 28th against the pass and 22nd in total yards allowed.
What I’m saying is turnovers are nice but they can’t be counted on over the long haul. You can’t say, “well, we give up 350 yards per game but lead the league in red zone INTs!” and think that can last. Eventually you’re not going to get that pick. Like a card counter in Vegas, you have to play the percentages. It’s far preferably to hold the other team to under 200 yards of offense than give up huge chunks on the hope the other team will turn the ball over before they score.
The personnel may be different but the philosophy is still the same. Disrupt the quarterback, stop the run, force the other team to become one dimensional. The Steelers are executing the Dick LeBeau game plan to a T. And the scary part is they’re doing it without the services of Troy Polamalu.
If they’re this good without him, what are they going to do when he comes back for a playoff run?
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Now, that’s more like it…
The Pittsburgh Steelers had their finest showing of the season last night, humbling the Cincinnati Bengals before a national audience on Sunday Night Football. While the final score of 24-17 doesn’t exactly speak to a one-sided whuppin’, scores can be misleading. This was clearly the Black and Gold’s most complete game on both sides of the ball.
Even more encouraging, instead of the usual pattern of starting strong only to falter at the end, this week the Steelers flipped the script. They came out of the gate flat and proceeded to spot the energetic young Bengals a big lead only to close the gap in the final minutes before halftime then totally dominating the second half.
Let’s start with that first half. If Mike Wallace is trying to convince the Steelers not to Franchise him after the season, he’s doing a great job. Wallace dropped at least four easily catchable balls, several of which would’ve went for big gains. He did wind up leading the team with 8 catches (for only 52 yards) but if you’re going to thump your chest and call yourself one of the league’s elite, you need to start making big plays. Nobody is playing $9 million for a decoy/possession receiver.
As bad as Wallace was, the worst misfire goes to Baron Batch. Early in the 2nd, Todd Haley dialed up a little trickeration with a lateral to Antonio Brown leading to a pass to a wide open Batch. There literally wasn’t a Bengal within 15 yards of Batch. Brown’s pass wasn’t much more than a punt and yet he let it go right through his arms. Somewhere, Limas Sweed is laughing at Baron Batch.
To add insult to injury, two plays later Ben Roethlisberger tried to force a throw between three defenders to Heath Miller in the end zone and ended up getting picked. It was the first of two costly miscues from Ben. On the Steelers next drive, rookie Mike Adams got pushed back into him and he would up fumbling the ball. Gifted field position inside the Steelers 10, the Bengals got out to a commanding 14-3 lead shortly before half.
That’s when the game started to turn. And it turned by the Steelers RUNNING THE BALL. Now Big Ben groupies like Mark Madden aren’t ever going to admit this but once again it’s become crystal clear this offense does 200x better when they run the ball effectively. Jonathan Dwyer, who spent the past couple weeks in Mike Tomlin‘s existential doghouse, had the game of his lie beginning in the second quarter when he ripped off runs of 11, 4, 4, and 21 yards.
Dwyer was aided by some nice run blocking from an offensive line which did a fantastic job all night. I’ve been extremely hard on Willie Colon but he’s proving to be a fairly significant upgrade over Kemo at LG. Although he still struggles occasionally in pass protection, he’s an absolute animal at run blocking. The goofs on NBC kept insisting Adams needed help even when their replays clearly showed the double team on Max Starks‘ side. I thought Adams acquitted himself well as it seemed to me the Steelers schemed to double Geno Smith rather than “help” any specific lineman. Despite all the gnashing of teeth over Pouncey and Gilbert, the line only surrendered three sacks while providing enough protection for Ben to get off 37 passes and the backs to romp for a season high 167 yards.
After Stonecold Shaun Suisham booted a 47 yarder to cut Cincy’s lead to 14-6, it was the defense’s turn to step up. On the Bengals first TD drive, they ran right at the Ziggy Hood and LaMarr Woodley like 5 plays in a row and couldn’t be stopped. Here they tried throwing in that direction and the Woodman batted a ball into his own arms for a key interception. Five plays later, Ben hit Heath Miller for a 9 yard TD.
Then we had our first comical situation of the game when Tomlin indulged his 2 point conversion fetish we discovered years ago in Jacksonville. Ben asked for time but the refs, who lost track of time outs (yeah, these guys are SO MUCH better than the scabs), refused to grant it. So Ben ran the play anyway, successfully hitting Heath to tie the game. When Ben walked off the field, a very pissed looking Tomlin met him, evidently thinking his QB ignored his orders to call time.
After Woodley’s interception, the game was all Steelers. Cincy got a FG in their first drive after halftime but their final five possessions resulted in five punts. What’s more, four of those five were 3 and outs. In my preview, I lauded AJ Green as the NFL’s best receiver. The much-maligned Ike Taylor held him to one catch for 8 yards. Okay, Ike had help as Dick LeBeau devised a high-lo defense where a safety would bracket Green but give credit where credit is due. Ike played a great game. The entire secondary played a great game.
And they caught a few breaks. As mentioned, Cincy ran right at the Steelers over and over on their first TD drive. Then Cincy’s center got hurt. The new guy was smaller and weaker and couldn’t handle Casey Hampton at all. Once Big Snack got on track, their running game collapsed.
Meanwhile, the Steelers running game was on fire. Dwyer would finish with 122 yards. Chris Rainey, who is proving to be another of Kevin Colbert’s late round steals, added the go-ahead touchdown off a draw play. Rainey also had several really good run backs which were called back on flags. The Steelers were flagged on EVERY SINGLE return yesterday. Or at least it seemed that way. Al Everest must have been a major asshole for Tomlin to fire him three weeks before the season started. I don’t know he did to get canned (offer Mrs. Tomlin a mustache ride?) but they better start looking for a new coordinator the minute the season ends because the current guy sucks.
But last night’s game certainly did not. In fact, it was the kind of performance that makes me feel a whole lot better about the Black and Gold’s prospects going forward. Meanwhile, the Ratbirds got humiliated by the Texans to drop to 5-2. Elsewhere, the Patriots struggled against a Jets team we thoroughly beat back in week 2. I guess what I’m saying is, nobody in the AFC is head and shoulders above the rest (except maybe the Texans). This looks like the kind of year where you get into the post-season and anything can happen. Yesterday’s victory ensured the Steelers remain in the post-season conversation for at least a little while longer.
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Video courtesy of Benstonium
Welcome to the this year’s first installment of Know Thy Enemy. You may notice another Know Thy Enemy running on another Pittsburgh Steelers site, a site I started and a feature I began writing five years ago. Obviously those uncreative hacks can’t think up their own material so they’ve decided to coast along with my leftovers. Accept no cheap substitutes!
For the newbies, Know Thy Enemy is my weekly catch-all post where I preview the Steelers’ upcoming game. I analyze the team’s opponent, look at how they match up, and also give a final run down of key injuries for either side. So without further ado, let’s get to it!
The Denver Broncos handed the Steelers what was undoubtedly one of their most embarrassing playoff losses ever last season. Even defensive mastermind Dick LeBeau is still shaking his head over how last season ended. Ordinarily when a team engineers a magical playoff run which culminates in a franchise’s biggest win in nearly a decade, they spend the off-season building upon what got them there. John Elway, VP and de facto GM of Denver, went the other way. He tore it all down and decided to start over.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs BRONCOS OFFENSE
Of course Elway’s biggest move was jettisoning the man responsible for all his team’s magic, Tim Tebow. They were comfortable giving up on the Messiah because they were able to acquire a Football God. Peyton Manning, fresh off a season lost to serious neck surgery, was cut loose by the rebuilding Colts. Elway pounced and thus ended the Tebow Era in Denver.
The history of superstar QBs leaving their original team at the twilight of their career isn’t pretty. Joe Namath stumbled through a forgettable season with the Rams and Johnny U finished up with an unmemorable run with the Chargers. Joe Montana had slightly better results with the Chiefs (including a memorable overtime playoff win against Bill Cowher‘s Steelers, thanks to some inept punting from Mark Royals). Much like riding the Thunderbolt at Kennywood or making love to a woman, the second time is never as good as the first. Preseason reports were Manning looked every bit the Manning of old but experiencing the same level of success as he had with the Colts, where he won 12+ games in eight of his thirteen years, would definitely be a case of defying history.
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Talk about getting left at the altar…
Pittsburgh Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler had a change of heart over the weekend, deciding not to join the Indianapolis Colts as their next defensive coordinator. Over the past couple off-seasons, Butler has been the go-to choice for teams looking for a new D-coordinator. He turned down a job with the Dolphins two years ago and the Steelers refused to grant him permission to interview with the Cardinals last summer. The consensus is Butler has been tabbed to take over for Dick LeBeau whenever the master decides to retire although his brief flirtation with the Ponies seems to indicate he’s worried about getting JoePa’d. All parties involved are stating no promises have been made in regards to transitioning Butler into the top job in the near future.
Which naturally means promises were made regarding transitioning Butler into the top job in the near future.
Butler to the Colts was never an ideal match. Indy still plays Tony Dungy’s 4-3 Tampa-2 while Butler is a disciple of LeBeau’s 3-4 Zone Blitz scheme. With the Colts in full rebuilding mode, perhaps they were willing to devote the next couple drafts to bringing in the proper defensive personnel to run the Steelers’ system but it would be a few years before they’d have the right players in place. My feeling is Butler has been patiently waiting to take over the Steelers’ defense for the past three years but with LeBeau still going strong, perhaps he’s feeling a bit desperate. The fact he opted against joining the Colts signals to me that 2012 will probably be LeBeau’s final season as D-coordinator.
In other coordinator news, former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell will not be coming to Pittsburgh to take over offensive playcalling. *Whew* As I mentioned on Monday, he would’ve been an absolutely horrible choice for O-coordinator. He’s never been an offensive coordinator on any level and his football credentials primarily consist of being Dungy’s friend and fetching coffee for Peyton Manning. The Ratbirds ended up hiring Caldwell as QB Coach which is hilarious on a number of levels. The main one being the idea that zombie will somehow be able to transform Bert Flacco into another Pey-Pey.
The newest offensive coordinator prospect is former Chiefs head coach Todd Haley. The Steelers official website even posted a blurb about Haley meeting with Mike Tomlin, which is very unusual for that super-secretive organization. Haley, as noted before, is a Pittsburgh native and his father, Dick Haley, played for the Steelers before serving as the team’s director of player of personnel (Kevin Colbert’s job today) during the Steel Dynasty. Haley wouldn’t be the worst choice in the world as he managed to turn a talent-barren Chiefs team into a respectable offense and made his name as the O-coordinator for Ken Whisenhunt’s Super Bowl runner-up Cardinals. The problem with Haley is he has a reputation for being an unbearable prick, having alienated players on both the Chiefs and Cardinals with his abrasive personality.
One thing is for sure, the Steelers better make a move soon because the pool of decent offensive coordinator candidates is rapidly thinning out. The Fins hired Green Bay’s O-coordinator, Joe Philbin, as head coach which means QB coach Tom Clements will likely be promoted there. Caldwell and former Raiders coach Hue Jackson have found jobs elsewhere. The Steelers have the option to promote their QB coach, Randy Fichtner, to the top job but I don’t see how he’d be a huge change from Arians. A dark horse candidate I’ve heard thrown around is former Pitt Panthers quarterback Alex Van Pelt. It’s an intriguing name but Van Pelt’s previous NFL experience has been overseeing pathetic offenses in Buffalo and Tampa. I’m not sure that’s the guy you entrust with a team that has Super Bowl aspirations.
So, who should be the Black and Gold’s next offensive coordinator?
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This weekend, the Pittsburgh Steelers face the Cincinnati Bengals in a crucial AFC match-up. Unfortunately, most of you who live out-of-state will have to fire up the satellite dish or visit your favorite Steeler bar in order to watch since it’s neither a national nor prime time game. In fact, all Bengal games start at one o’clock because they have to be indoors before curfew as a condition of parole.
Anyway, when last we left Cincy, franchise quarterback Carson Palmer was saying he’d rather retire than strap on their orange jumpsuit ever again. Hardheaded GM/Owner Mike Brown eventually traded him to the desperate Oakland Raiders which for Palmer must have been like being handed a Get Out Of Jail Free card. The haul in return was impressive, a first rounder and a second that becomes a first if the Raiduhs win a playoff game, which I’m sure Cincy will use to augment their team with the best available criminals in next year’s draft.
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On Saturday, I got snookered into watching what was laughingly dubbed “The Game of the Century” between Alabama and LSU. The media’s desperate efforts to convince us that sloppy snoozefest was an “instant classic” doesn’t change the fact there were five good offensive plays in the whole thing, four of which were by lineman. The latest chapter in the epic rivalry between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers invited comparisons to that game by the blabbering fools in the the booth, which is like comparing a Porsche to a Kia. Last night was a true Game of the Century.
Unfortunately, the Steelers came out on the losing end.
Ninety-two yards. Those three words will live in Steeler infamy alongside Tim McKyer, Joe Nedney and SpyGate. Ninety-two yards. How does the most vaunted defense in the NFL allow a team to drive almost the length of the field in less than two minutes with the game on the line?
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No, I’m not talking about an apathetic fan base and a sea of empty seats at every home game. The Pitt Panthers already have that covered.
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin first rose to prominence as a defensive backs coach under Tony Dungy down in Tampa. Dungy’s defense of choice was a modified version of the 4-3 scheme he learned as a player (and later coach) under Chuck Noll. Despite Tomlin’s preference for running the Tampa-2, one of the conditions upon his hiring was he retain Dick LeBeau, inventor and master of the 3-4 zone blitz. Considering the Steelers have ranked at or near the top of the NFL in total defense every year since he arrived in Pittsburgh, I’m sure Tomlin has had no complaints about the change.
Besides LeBeau being one of the finest defensive minds of all-time, management didn’t want to change philosophies because they simply didn’t have the right personnel. Whenever a team switches from 3-4 to 4-3 (or vice versa) there is an adjustment period because what is expected from each player changes. Some of you may remember a couple years back when fatass Albert Haynesworth pitched a fit because Washington switched from a 4-3 (where he could collect a bunch of stats, and the bonuses that went with them, by rushing the quarterback) to a 3-4 (where, like our linemen, his primary job was to occupy blockers and create gaps for others to make plays). If you ever wondered why the Steelers love stocking up on linebackers in the draft, it’s because our scheme depends on having plenty of strong, athletic linebackers on the roster.
Unfortunately, we currently have a bunch of strong, athletic linebackers on the injury report.