In the context of fairness, I should point out, before I get too heavily into this, that the Pittsburgh Steelers have long been regarded as a model NFL franchise, having established themselves as (near) perennial playoff contenders and owners of more Super Bowl championships, Hall of Fame players, and bars in foreign cities than any other NFL franchise in existence. Much of that success has been built upon superior defensive play, a trademark of a good percentage of their title runs during the last four decades.
Now that that’s safely behind us, it’s fair to ask of this “flagship” and its fans…what the hell is wrong?
The Steelers, in the wake of two mediocre campaigns, were supposed to fix things this year. This was going to be the year that they re-established themselves as a potential Super Bowl contender and knocked off their divisional competition, as they had finally started to jettison longtime stalwarts and ineffective younger players in favor of a more streamlined, sleeker, speedier model. Gone were the venerable but hobbling performers of yesteryear, including run-stuffing nose tackle Casey Hampton, sackmaster-linebacker James Harrison, swarthy-but-ever-reliable end Brett Kiesel, hard-hitting loquacious safety Ryan Clark, and the steady wisdom of linebacker Larry Foote.
There were other maneuvers, of course – in salary cap-related moves, oft-overweight linebacker LaMarr Woodley was shipped out in favor of retaining the resurgent (and younger) Jason Worilds, and the previous year, rising cornerback Keenan Lewis was let go, ceding space to holdover Cortez Allen. At a glance, it appears the Steelers essentially gutted their defense in favor of a group of new performers whose average NFL experience is approximately two seasons.
The Steelers haven’t been awful – two straight .500 seasons doesn’t spell doom for most franchises – but given the standard (pun absolutely intended) established in head coach Mike Tomlin’s era, particularly on defense, anything less than a title is considered a failure in Pittsburgh (this attitude is prevalent among the most-successful and least-liked franchises in any sport, by the way). This team had established the same defensive system long before Tomlin’s arrival in 2007, stressing continuity and a belief in the various moving parts defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau still employs. As long as there were holdovers to groom the way for the younger pickups, the system remained intact and effective, producing two defensive players of the year in the last decade and never ranking lower than fifth in total defense during the same span.
Now take a closer look at the current model. Due largely to injury, the Steelers have been forced to bring back Keisel and Harrison, and while Keisel has been steady, Harrison remains out of shape and a shadow of his former self, even in limited snaps. The secondary is clearly struggling with the loss of longtime cornerback Ike Taylor, whose gruesome broken arm forced the defense to rely on Allen as a frontline corner; a role he’s clearly not comfortable with or suited for. The drawbacks of nose tackle Steve McLendon’s game have become glaringly obvious, as opposing teams seemingly run at will against the Steelers’ front seven, and defensive end Cameron Heyward seems more concerned about the inequities of chop blocks than he does about side-stepping them. Currently injured pass rusher Jarvis Jones wasn’t exactly enjoying a banner outing prior to going down, and rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier’s speed seemed to lead to more overrun plays than tackles (Shazier’s also injured, return date to be determined). The remaining veterans, particularly safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker Lawrence Timmons, have been tasked with entirely too much, reducing their effectiveness on almost every down.
Steelers fans are often quick to point out that LeBeau rarely, if ever, starts rookies on his defense, and that it takes time to grasp the nuances, calls, and deployments that the system calls for. Yet here they are, through injury or otherwise, counting on a host of younger players to effectively fill gaps that had been previously manned by experienced veterans who had been digesting this defense for many years.
What sort of results did anyone reasonably expect?
The offense, for all of its statistical warts, remains salvageable, as the core of its effective players remains intact. This seems to be a problem with communication and scheming more than anything else, but we’ll reserve that for another column. For now, it’s safe to say that the Steelers are simply overwhelmed defensively, and must continue to endure what many outside the organization would perceive as growing pains. It’s tough to think that LeBeau has “lost it”, or that the game has passed him by, because the personnel in question certainly aren’t doing him any favors. Give him this same roster, healthy and another year removed from the trials of the last two seasons, and they might just resemble the bunch that brought about a couple of Super Bowl appearances.
They’re young. They’re learning. But they’re clearly dinged up and lacking depth. Does this constitute gutting the coaching staff? Seems to be an extreme solution to a presumably temporary set of problems, as injuries heal, free agents become available, and more draft picks are added.
Give them time. Don’t short them something else to add to the current confusion.