Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and Troy Polamalu leave the field after the Steelers lose to the Ravens 30-17 in last night's AFC playoff game.
PITTSBURGH — In the NFL, as in everyday life, perception is often reality.
For much of the early part of the 2014 season, the perception of the Steelers’ defense wasn’t kind. Viewed as old and inconsistent, the decisions to bring Brett Keisel and James Harrison back when injuries and poor performance hit the front seven were often mocked. The stats weren’t kind either, as evidenced by the Steelers ranking 18th in points allowed per game, 18th in yards allowed, and a dreadful 27th in passing yards allowed per game.
It was a startling trend. After a string of elite defensive performances from 2007 through 2011 led to two Super Bowl appearances, the Steelers slipped some in 2012 and more in 2013, when the Steelers allowed 23.1 points per game, a full touchdown more than the average total of the previous six seasons.
Even now, the stats aren’t kind, especially on the advanced analytics side. Advanced stats gurus FootballOutsiders.com lambasted the Steelers’ defense in their preview of the AFC Wild Card game Saturday night, calling defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau a dinosaur and watching the Steelers’ defense in person “like taking a tour through Jurassic Park.”
It’s the type of performance and perception that has led to increased speculation that the 77-year-old LeBeau might be done after 56 consecutive seasons in the NFL. And if so, it might not entirely be his choice.
That was five weeks ago. Now, the perception is changing, even if the stats are slow to adjust. The Steelers may be giving up 23 points per game, but heading into Saturday's playoff game, they allowed 17.5 points per game in the last month of the regular season. That one touchdown is the difference between 18th in the NFL and second.
The make-up of the opposition helped. Atlanta, Cincinnati and Kansas City are firmly entrenched as middle-of-the-pack offenses in today’s NFL, and only the Falcons could be considered explosive at 284.6 passing yards per game.
But having a good match-up is only part of the equation. The Steelers took advantage of the situation, ringing up 12 sacks in those four games, a sharp increase from their previous average of 1.75 per game. Three sacks per game all season long would have placed the Steelers’ fourth in the NFL.
The added pressure also led to an increase in turnovers in the last four weeks and fewer third down conversions by opposing offenses. It was present again at times Saturday night. Even if it didn't always result in a sack of Joe Flacco, pressure - and the lack thereof, at times - often dictated the success or failure of Baltimore drives.
Whether the Steelers' won or lost Saturday night likely had little impact on Dick LeBeau's future. But their performance leading up to their first playoff appearance since 2012 surely did. The last month has likely altered more than just the perception surrounding the Steelers’ defense. It’s also altered the reality surrounding LeBeau's choice.
It will certainly now be his decision to retire or stay, not a forced personnel change masquerading as retirement.