I’ve said it before but it bears repeating – I love Steeler Nation. There’s nothing like wearing a Super Bowl XL Champions t-shirt in Calgary, Canada or Albuquerque, New Mexico and having some complete random stranger walk up to you and say, “Go Stillers!” While I love the Pittsburgh Steelers fanbase, there’s a segment that drives me friggin’ crazy. If you want an example of who I’m talking about, just tune into Pittsburgh sports talk radio and you won’t have to listen for very long.
There’s an old football cliche that the most popular guy in town is the back-up quarterback. That was certainly true here at least until Terry Bradshaw started collecting rings. Since then, we’ve been relatively QB controversy free. Charlie Batch is certainly a more beloved figure locally than Ben Roethlisberger but only the most insane yinzer would’ve suggested starting Batch over (a healthy) Roethlisberger.
When it comes to the Steel City, the cliche should be amended to say, “the most popular guy in town in the previous offensive/defensive coordinator.”
I’ll spare you the coordinator-go-round we had when Bill Cowher was here. Just recently, though, everybody hated offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. Every time the Steelers would go three and out, the armchair geniuses on Twitter would moan about his playcalls as if being really good at Madden makes you capable of devising a game plan. When Arians finally
was fired retired, people rejoiced.
Until Todd Haley oversaw his first three and out.
Then all the #firearians hashtags became #firehaley ones. This is forgetting, of course, that Big Ben was on track for a career season last year before he got hurt while this year we began the season with our best receiver playing in Miami, no real options at running back, and an abominable offensive line. Somehow, the Steelers offense has managed to improve over the past month or so – no doubt thanks to the lousy teams they’ve been playing. If not for some dropped TDs and ill-timed turnovers, you could say Haley’s offense has been downright competent.
So now that bitching about the offense has become so last month, the yinzers have turned their guns to the defense. After the New England Patriots dropped a franchise worst 55 point on them this past Sunday, people are now saying that perhaps it’s time for Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to go.
And those people would be idiots.
They point to his age – LeBeau just turned 76 – and say maybe the game has passed him by. Really? Did it pass him by when the D was ranked #1 overall as recently as last season? Granted, that defense was paper champions. For several years now they’ve struggled to sack the quarterback and generate turnovers. But is that the scheme? Or a by-product of the guys who get the sacks or make the picks getting older?
I think it’s definitely the latter.
You don’t scheme for turnovers. Look at the Patriots game – and believe me, I wish they’d burn every copy of it – one of Ben’s picks came because two receivers ran the same route. How does a defensive coordinator plan for two guys being boneheads? Likewise, how many times have we seen a ball hit Ike Taylor square in the chest only for it to fall harmlessly to the ground? Is it the coordinator’s fault he has hand of concrete?
Turnovers are a by-product of luck and skill. There’s not much you can do about luck and the Steelers are simply not very skilled.
Pressure on the QB can be schemed and LeBeau still does that very well. How else do you explain a mediocre putz like Jason Worilds getting 5 sacks last season? At the end of the day, though, it comes down to talent. A good coordinator can scheme up pressure all day but if the linebacker doesn’t have a gap to shoot, there’s nothing to be done.
Ziggy Hood is no Aaron Smith. Steve McLendon is a light breakfast compared to Big Snack Casey Hampton. Jarvis Jones is gonna be good but right now he’s not at the level of Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison. Go position by position and it’s near impossible to find a single position on the D that you can say is better now than it was five years ago.
Even worse, at several positions we still have the same guy playing there as five years ago.
Compare that with a team like the Patriots. They have a few holdovers but they’ve mostly overhauled their roster. The NFL is all about roster turnover. And the Steelers – primarily thanks to the GM and head coach – have done a piss-poor job of bringing in new talent.
Has the game passed LeBeau by? Well, I was watching the Green Bay-Chicago game last night and who happens to be the Packers defensive coordinator but Dom Capers. Capers is a LeBeau disciple who still employs his mentor’s zone blitz scheme. In fact, coordinators all over the NFL still frequently employ the schemes LeBeau himself pioneered. The game didn’t pass him by, he’s as relevant as ever.
What’s more, the plan for LeBeau’s eventual retirement has been in place for years now. Linebacker coach Keith Butler has steadily declined a chance to become D-coordinator elsewhere as he’s LeBeau’s heir apparent. When the day comes that Butler assumes the big chair, he’s not going to suddenly switch the Steelers to a 4-3 Cover-2. Butler is another LeBeau disciple and he’ll simply continue with the same schemes we’ve been using all along. So why trash the original just to replace it with a 3rd generation copy?
I know when you’re mired in a season as miserable as the Steelers currently find themselves people want to see heads roll. And there are certainly people to blame for this fiasco. But blaming LeBeau – or Haley for that matter – is akin to blaming deck hands because the Titanic hit an iceberg. As with anything, when it comes time to point fingers, start at the top.