Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Steelers defense has been mostly famine with little feast this season

By Chris Mueller
September 28, 2016
Darren Sproles. (Jeff Fusco)
Darren Sproles scores on a 73-yard pass play last Sunday. (Jeff Fusco)
It isn't the injuries that are troubling. Injuries happen, and good football teams tend to find ways to overcome them, unless the battered party is the starting quarterback.
It isn't really the poor offensive showing that concerns me, either. The Steelers' stated goal of averaging 30 points per game looked laughable while they were bumbling their way around against an aggressive, vicious Eagles defense.
Those guys should be better, though. Their track record suggests as much, and they are getting back perhaps the best running back in the league in  Le'Veon Bell this Sunday night. They should be fine.
No, it was the performance of the defense, one that was lauded for its "bend, but don't break" quality through two weeks, that should be alarming.
The phrase "bend, but don't break" is really code for "this defense can't get sacks or force turnovers, but it generally tackles when it should, and keeps play in front of them."
Sunday, the Steelers did not do that. They got shredded by a rookie quarterback and eviscerated by Darren Sproles. They generated no pressure, with Jarvis Jones looking toothless as a pass rusher. They forced no turnovers, made no splashy plays.
Most of all, when a tough stand to start the second half may have changed the timbre of the game, the Steelers' defense folded like a cheap tent.
What is a defense if it isn't forcing turnovers, sacking the quarterback, or limiting teams to field goals more often than not?
Bad, that's what.
That's what Keith Butler's troops will be if they don't find a way to pick off some passes, generate consistent pressure, and make life uncomfortable for opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators.
Last year's team, despite having no truly elite pass rushing threat, still racked up the third most sacks in the league. Even though they were often victimized through the air, they made several momentum changing interceptions. They were feast or famine, but at least they were predictable.
So far this year, it has been mostly famine, minimal feast, at least where dynamic plays are concerned.
The problems go deeper than that. First-round pick Artie Burns still looks very green, the secondary is already banged up, and Cleveland castoff Justin Gilbert may start getting playing time. What's more, Ryan Shazier, by now the obvious best player on that side of the ball, is banged up again and may not play this Sunday night.
There is time for Butler to come up with answers, yes, and the Steelers' offense should create more leeway than just about every other team has, but it's fair to wonder whether or not the talent is there to foment real improvement. When James Harrison still stands as your most fearsome healthy pass rusher, at least at linebacker, the situation isn't great.
Injuries explain some of this, but not much. It isn't like Bud Dupree set the world on fire last year. It isn't like Robert Golden is the second coming of Ed Reed or Ronnie Lott in the defensive backfield. The Steelers have used plenty of high draft choices to try and rebuild their defense, and outside of Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, many of them have struggled to gain traction as pros.
When that happens, you're left trying to piece together something workable without much in the way of pedigree or polish. Where are the answers? There don't seem to be any easy ones.
There is plenty of reason to believe that the Steelers' offensive performance against Philadelphia was nothing more than a hiccup, and that a deep and talented roster on that side of the ball will soon find its level.
Unfortunately, the same goes for the Steelers' defense, except that in their case, finding their level may mean worse days are ahead.
Bend, but don't break? If Sunday was any indication, the Steelers' defense will be picking up the pieces on a regular basis this season.

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