Every Tuesday, Mike Tomlin holds his weekly press conference. As I’ve stated many times in the past, I tend to ignore whatever “news” comes out of it. I don’t do this because I prefer to be an uneducated fan; on the contrary, writing a Pittsburgh Steelers blog makes it doubly important I stay informed. No, I ignore the Mike Tomlin presser because experience has shown you can’t believe what you hear.
In simpler terms, Tomlin tells a lot lies.
I don’t blame Tomlin for lying to the press. He’s one of those ultra-secretive coaches who believes information is power and if it’s good enough for Bill Belichick, it’s good enough for Tomlin. I just get aggravated when people fail to take what he says with a grain of salt. He regularly downplays injuries that are much more serious than he lets on (James Harrison’s broken orbital last season comes to mind) and hints at personnel moves that he has no intention of following (When Bryant McFadden struggled a couple seasons back, he said it was time to see what some of the youngsters could do. They never saw the field).
Which is why yesterday brought a rare moment of honesty from Tomlin. Granted it was couched in typical Tomlinspeak – he follows the political model of never let three words suffice when grand eloquent sentences with opaque meanings can be used instead – but honest it was nonetheless.
Addressing the Steelers defensive performance on Sunday night, Tomlin said “The reality is that we didn’t play well enough post-snap. Forget about whether or not they huddle between plays, we’ve got full control over how we play once the ball is snapped and it wasn’t up to snuff in many instances.” He also cautioned fans against blaming the absence of Ryan Clark and James Harrison for the defensive inadequacies. “Obviously, those guys are capable of helping us. They’re quality veteran players. They know how to play and, specifically in Ryan’s case, not only his play but his communication and leadership. That remains to be seen and we’re not going to assume anything.” sayeth Coach T.
In other words, don’t expect the D to suddenly start dominating teams just because two guys come back.
The fact is, the normally stout Steelers defense has some serious question marks this season. A big part of the problem is they’re just plain old. Seven starters are over the age of 30. Contrast that with another long-time defensive juggernaut, the Ravens, who’ve so successfully infused fresh talent into their team that only Ed Reed and Ray Lewis remain as elder statesman.
The problem with old players isn’t just the natural decline which comes with age. Even when they are still capable of playing at a high level, their bodies inevitably start to break down. Last season, Harrison and Troy Polamalu were clearly the team’s defensive standouts. However, both have also battled a host of ailments the past couple years. Harrison had two back surgeries during the off-season, then came down with a knee issue when training camp started. Tomlin says he’s expected back this week but it’s clear he’s become alarmingly injury prone. Then we have Troy, who looked great the first half against the Broncos before fading away. Evidently he strained his calf which limited him as time went on. He’s also expected to play on Sunday.
Still, here we are one week into the season and both are already showing up on injury reports.
Meanwhile, where is the infusion of young talent? One thing that bugged me following the Broncos loss were Steeler fans on twitter repeating Warren Sapp’s “They’re old, slow and done” comment from last season. The D is old but the line-up they put on the field last Sunday against Denver sure wasn’t. Harrison was replaced by 23 year old Chris Carter and 24 year old Jason Worilds. Clark was replaced by 27 year old Ryan Mundy. Casey Hampton, who’s become a two down player anyway, split time fairly evenly with 26 year old Steve McClendon.
Worilds had a sack when Peyton Manning screwed up a protection call and gave him a free shot at the QB. The only legitimate sack they got was from veteran Larry Foote. Other than that, where was the pressure? LaMarr Woodley got a big contract a couple off-seasons ago but his sack totals have declined every year for the past three years. He only seems to generate pressure when Harrison is on the other side. Worilds has been a bust. Inside, we have Foote, who’s a stop-gap until the team finds a young ILB to groom in his place. Opposite him is Lawrence Timmons, who was supposed to be that ILB but has consistently underperformed since being drafted in the first round back in 2007. He’s supposedly this super-athlete on par with Troy but Troy would never let Peyton Manning OUTRUN HIM to the sticks.
Wait, you may say, Dick LeBeau‘s zone blitz depends on the D-linemen opening up gaps for the linebackers. Fair enough. McClendon isn’t stout at the point of attack. He gets pushed around in the run game which is why Big Snack usually plays the first two downs. He’s not a starter. And what’s up with Ziggy Hood? Was his name even called? Looking at the box score from Denver, he had 2 tackles, no assists. TWO TACKLES. Aaron Smith could make more plays on one leg.
Then we have the secondary. The Steelers have tried to find a second corner to pair with Ike Taylor for years. Of course, their search usually involves a mid-to-late round project they hope to coach up. The light bulb finally came on for Willie Gay last season but the team let him go to
Pittsburgh West Arizona. His replacement, Keenan Lewis, was an average at best nickel last year and so far has looked like another B-Mac with his generous 10 yard cushions. The team is high on second year man Cortez Allen but he didn’t exactly distinguish himself against the Broncos, either. Meanwhile, Mundy remains the teams go-to safety off the bench even though he gets beat like Justin Bieber at a biker rally every time he’s on the field.
The bottom line is the Steelers D is a big question mark. Veteran stars are facing an inevitable decline while the young guys don’t appear ready for prime time. Steeler Nation may need to face the fact that for the first time in a very long time, it may be the offense which needs to carry the team. Play to your strengths. And right now, the defense is anything but a strength.