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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Once upon a time, the prospect of playing the boys from the Mile High City was met with the same level of disdain Steeler Nation now reserves for the Ratbirds or Patriots. After last night’s game, I think it’s safe to say while the Denver Broncos may not be full-fledged members of the Circle of Hate, they’re definitely vying for a spot. For the second straight game dating back to last season’s Wild Card debacle, the Broncos defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in groan-worthy fashion, 31-19.
Where to start with this disaster.
How about new offensive coordinator Todd Haley? Some people view Twitter as a sign of the apocalypse (Follow me @totalsteelers) but I enjoy it because instead of waiting hours or even minutes to gauge reaction, you have it in seconds. It took roughly one quarter before the armchair offensive coordinators started calling for Haley’s head. His crime?
He was running the ball too much!
Yes, the same group who called into Pittsburgh sports talk shows whining about Bruce Arians and his Flying Circus offense for the past three years were moaning because Haley gave them what they asked for. More importantly, he gave Art Rooney II exactly what he wanted, a return to Stiller Football. And how did Stiller Football fare? Isaac Redman gained 20 yards on 11 carries while Jon Dwyer, one of the game’s lone offensive stars, chipped in 43 yards on only 9 carries with one big 17 yard gain wiped out due to a dubious holding call on Mike Wallace.
On the bright side, we totally dominated time of possession!
Seeing this offense try to relive the glory days of Franco and the Bus was PAINFUL to watch. Several times we had first and 15s and Haley elected to run on two successive downs. Only Ben Roethlisberger completing some big third down throws kept the chains moving. This team has one of the deepest and most talented group of wide receivers in the NFL. They shouldn’t be running to set up the pass, they should be passing to set up the run.
FORGET YINZERBALL AND PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS.
Ben is going to catch some flak for his performance last night, as he should. When your rep is being the best clutch player in football, you don’t throw a pick-six down six with 3 minutes left. Ben certainly had a Jekyll/Hyde game, making some great throws where he literally threaded a needle but he also made several incredibly dangerous throws which could’ve easily gotten intercepted. He also missed several big plays such as botching a sure TD to Heath Miller (who was open all day) and never seeing Wallace left wide open on a crucial fourth quarter drive. While I think it’d be totally unfair to pin this loss on him, Ben needs to play a helluva lot better if this team is going to win.
Especially if the defense is going to play like they played last night. Last year, Warren Sapp derided them as old, slow and done. This season, it appears they’re young, eager and over their heads. Despite obnoxious Cris Collinsworth occasionally getting up off his knees to proclaim “Peyton Manning is doing this to the league’s #1 ranked defense!” this is not the league’s top ranked defense. That was last year’s team with James Harrison and Ryan Clark and a healthier Casey Hampton and William Gay opposite Ike Taylor. Last night’s defense had none of those things and the results showed.
Manning was only sacked twice and one of those, by Jason Worilds, was a clean shot thanks to Manning mixing up the protection call. Other than a first quarter sack by Larry Foote, who was one of the few bright spots on defense, they generated almost zero pressure. Surely the altitude played a part but it doesn’t excuse anything. The bottom line is the Steelers offense held the ball for a whopping 10 minutes (35 to 25) longer yet the “exhausted” Broncos D held them to 19 points while the “rested” Steelers D allowed Pey-Pey to march right down the field on them.
Foote forced an early fumble although it was more luck than skill as he got thrown into the back and happened to knock the ball loose. That was it as far as highlights go. The D-line got pushed around on passing plays and couldn’t stop the run when it counted. The linebackers effort can be summed up by watching Peyton OUTRUN supposedly super-athlete Lawrence Timmons to the sticks for a 7 yard gain. Then we have the secondary. Youngsters Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen did their best B-Mac impressions, allowing generous 5 yard cushions on every pass play. And then we have Demaryius Thomas, who once again abused Ike Taylor to the tune of 5 catches for 110 yards.
Perhaps no play summed up last night’s debacle like the third quarter turning point when Thomas took a little slant and ran away from like half the defense on his way to a 71 yard TD. Of course the scab refs missed a hold on Ryan Mundy on the play but it probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway.
What would have mattered was the facemask on Ben they missed on the Steelers’ previous drive which ended with a Shaun Suisham field goal. The game was an absolute fiasco from an officiating standpoint, with the scab refs saving their worst for prime time and most of their incompetence going against the Steelers. The lone time we got a call, on yet another boneheaded Mike Tomlin challenge which came in after a play had been run, it would’ve been better if they hadn’t. Meanwhile, Wallace’s hold wiping out a big Dwyer run and a crucial pass interference on Lewis late in the 4th were the definition of ticky-tacky especially after not calling worse against the Broncos. Evidently they did read the Illegal Formations portion of the rule book on the can before the game because that was one thing they called on both teams at least a good half dozen times.
Let’s not blame the scab refs on this fiasco. The Steelers played a terrible game last night. If Ben had Superman’d up and pulled out a last-second victory, it only would’ve been a Band-Aid on a gaping chest wound. The Steelers clearly have some fundamental issues they need to address on both sides of the ball. And they need to start by figuring out what kind of offense they want to run. Because what we saw last night isn’t going to get it done, not against Peyton Manning, not against Tim Tebow, not against anybody.
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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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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.
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…Walk into a bar. The bartender looks up and says, “What is this? A joke?”
Actually, this is serious business. I get emails. A long time ago on a site that blows now, I got an email from a guy by the name of John Butler. The son of former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Jack Butler, he created a website to promote his father’s candidacy for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Well, it looks like his hard work has finally paid off as the NFL’s Veteran Committee named Jack Butler one of their two nominees for the HOF.