Monday, September 01, 2014

If Steelers fail, blame the defense

Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau

The Steelers drafted. Free agents came and went. As the Steelers headed to training camp, they looked better. There seemed every reason to be optimistic.
Now, not so much.
The Steelers' defense was awful last year, and the problems don't seem to be fixed. Speed has been added, but the unit's shortcomings may negate that quickness.
Mike Mitchell replaced Ryan Clark at safety. Clark decelerated dramatically in the latter stages of his Pittsburgh tenure. But Mitchell looks no better.
No faster, certainly. Mitchell can't close. That was evident on the first defensive series of the first preseason game when Giants' running back Rashad Jennings pulled away from Mitchell en route to a 73-yard touchdown run.
Jennings isn't that fast. Mitchell looks that slow.
If Mitchell isn't better than Clark was, Troy Polamalu's ability to freelance from the other safety position will be diminished. The Steelers' D is woefully inept at manufacturing takeaways. If Polamalu plays it safe, that won't change.
Second-year linebacker Jarvis Jones remains invisible. If Jones can't get to opposition quarterbacks, Jason Worilds will draw extra attention on the other side.
Pressuring the QB is the lifeblood of the Steelers' 3-4 defense. When that's not done, the trickledown can be fatal.
The cornerbacks won't provide life support. Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen and William Gay were shredded on a regular basis last season. They looked horrific in preseason. Stricter officiating that cracks down on illegal contact won't help.
When the corners stink, the entire defense has to lean the wrong way. It's impossible to be as aggressive as coordinator Dick LeBeau likes.
Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier has had impressive moments. But it's not too early to second-guess the Steelers for not drafting a cornerback in the first round. That's where the need was, and is.
The Steelers could have made do at inside linebacker with Lawrence Timmons and either Vince Williams or Sean Spence.
It's considered blasphemy to wonder if LeBeau has stayed around too long. Maybe he doesn't have the components to execute a scheme that has long been successful.
Or perhaps his defense is outdated.
LeBeau's defense concedes short gains to the offense. No big plays. If the foe has to put together a 10- or 11-play drive, it's assumed a mistake will be made before points get scored. Bend, but don't break.
Problem is, the Steelers' defense too often breaks: 11 plays of 50 yards or more (and 17 plays of 40 yards or more) were surrendered in 2013.
It might be personnel. But if LeBeau lacks the proper talent, maybe he should adjust the X's and O's. The Steelers' D has done the same thing for a long time. The NFL lives on video. Predictability equals inefficiency.
The NFL has changed drastically. Offense has become very high-tech. Most offensive units are equipped to make big plays. Some thrive on them.
This season seems a big test for LeBeau, and for his way of doing things.
If the Steelers miss the playoffs for a third straight campaign, fans will know exactly who to blame: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. That's Pittsburgh. That's the nature of Roethlisberger's position, too.
But the reality is likely to be much different. If the Steelers come up short again, the defense will be at fault. Some tough decisions will have to be made.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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