Friday, January 16, 2015

They changed coordinators, now will the Steelers change priorities?


Over the last three seasons, Denver Coach John Fox went 38-10 and won three division titles. He made it to last season’s Super Bowl, losing badly to Seattle. Fox also presided over two playoff one-and-dones.
Over those same three seasons, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin went 27-21 and won one division title. He coached one playoff game, losing it.
Fox got fired. Tomlin’s job security is beyond question.
Football can be a funny game.
That’s not to suggest Tomlin should be terminated or that Fox should have been retained. Each franchise has different priorities and procedures.
Moving forward, let’s see if the Steelers’ priorities and procedures change.
More than any NFL team, the Steelers are high on loyalty and pay homage to tradition. But they just canned legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and Brett Keisel won’t be far behind. (Sorry, Mr. Taylor, but there is no “Ike” in “icon.” Uh, wait ... I guess there is. Darn. Anyway, you're out, too.)
None of this is bad. Mostly, it’s rational.
But Chuck Noll held onto his Super Bowl veterans a bit too long. It just seems odd to see the current Steelers draw the line so decisively.
Fan backlash to LeBeau’s dismissal was minimal, reflecting the move’s logic. The same media drones who lambasted hiring Jim Rutherford as Penguins GM because he’s “too old” criticized the LeBeau firing, citing LeBeau’s health, workout regimen and presumed immortality. Rutherford is 65. LeBeau is 77.
New defensive coordinator Keith Butler faces an odd challenge. Butler was groomed to be Dick LeBeau Jr. To carry on in LeBeau’s footsteps and do the same things. Now the demand exists to be anything but.
No more bend, but don’t break. No more needing two years to learn the defense. That’s absurd. You can learn French in three months. The NFL is a fast-food league. Get that young talent on the field.
Is the 3-4 dead? Is the zone blitz dead? It was once thought that Butler would merely have to maintain. Now he’s got to overhaul. Overhaul systematically by way of hybrid packages and 4-3 looks. Overhaul personnel by way of replacing a fistful of key players, past their prime but nonetheless established.
It’s difficult to criticize LeBeau’s moves this past season. He took terrible personnel and molded it into a defense that, by season’s end, was decent. Making that group average may be one of LeBeau’s finest accomplishments.
But Keisel consumed snaps while Stephon Tuitt sat. Harrison played because Jarvis Jones got hurt, but the commitment to Harrison was quick and absolute. Injuries plagued Shamarko Thomas, but he got two plays on defense all year. Thomas has been with the Steelers two years, but remains a mystery.
Tuitt was established by season’s end. Jones must stay healthy, and can’t disappoint. Thomas needs thrown in at the deep end. Sink or swim. Ryan Shazier must stay healthy, deal better with aches and pains, and find consistency. The only way to achieve that is by playing, not watching Vince Williams.
The Steelers’ draft could be revelatory.
“Take a cornerback!” is the mantra, and the Steelers certainly need one. Or two. Or three. But drafting strictly by need/position has damaged the Steelers before. (See Edwards, Troy.) Depending on what’s decided with Jason Worilds, getting a pass rusher may actually be more important.
Just don’t pick an inside linebacker. That would be too typically Steelers, and would show that real change will be minimal.
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