This week, my guest writer Rick Evans and I discuss the Steeler defense, what changes/decisions need made on that side of the ball, and how long the team is likely to struggle.
Dave Glass Well Rick, after the debacle at New England I thought it would be easy to pick apart the defense…but the performance they put up this week was night-and-day different. They completely suffocated Buffalo, allowing only a meaningless last-minute TD. So which game showed the ‘true’ nature of the defense? In my mind it was definitely the New England game. Buffalo’s QB is a rookie and the Bills have few deep threats, while Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski picked the Steeler secondary apart. The Steelers need to stop a legitimately strong passing game before I’ll believe in the defense again.
Rick Evans Well, I’m not privy to the abilities of the 2013 Bills other than what I heard was to be the seventh ranked rush offense, but we’ll get to that in a bit. Certainly, the Steelers defense appeared a little less like Mr. Hyde this week. I believe this game was a bit of a confidence booster that will help them in the weeks to come. I did see a few changes that surprised me greatly. There was more man to man coverage than I had seen all year until the final drive of the game. I would like to see that implemented against a stronger pass offense, and this week, they’ll have that opportunity.
They need a lot more jamming of receivers on the line of scrimmage too. That is necessary to disrupt the timing of pass patterns.
Dave Glass Yes, Detroit – and in particular Calvin Johnson, the greatest WR in the game, will provide a stern test. Let’s go position by position, starting with the unit I still think its the strongest on the team – linebacker. The loss of Foote hurt badly, but Lawrence Timmons has played at an all-pro level, Woodley has returned to form somewhat, and Worilds/Jones have each shown flashes on the other side. Do you think this unit is still among the elite in the NFL, and what do you think they need going forward?
Rick Evans Strong, yes…elite, no. They have a lot of youth to develop with the tutelage of Foote, Woodley, and Timmons. Timmons has been fantastic, and one of the best in the league. Woodley, though not as dominate, has had to deal with some injuries, but still draws a lot of double teams. Worilds has done nicely, as well as Jarvis Jones. Once Jarvis settles down and allows the game to slow down for him, he’s going to be a wrecking ball. The man who has surprised me the most, and who I see in on tackles just about every play is Vince Williams. I didn’t even know who he was or where he came from at the beginning of the year, but he’s certainly caught my attention. The most improved part of the linebacking core that I noticed this week was stopping the run. That was vital in last Sunday’s game.
Dave Glass So do you agree that this is probably the area that needs the least attention in the offseason? MAYBE draft an inside LB for depth late, otherwise just ‘turn’em loose’?
Rick Evans I know they will draft a linebacker (it’s the Steelers after all), but I would possibly skip drafting one in the coming year. They have a lot of young talent that can be developed into a fearsome bunch. I say use the draft picks for more desperate areas such as offensive tackle, and the defensive secondary.
Dave Glass I agree. Moving on to the defensive line…this is where the team’s draft failures have really hurt. Despite spending high picks on Cam Heyward and Ziggy Hood, this unit is simply not getting it done. They aren’t plugging gaps consistently against the run, and they generate very little pressure.
I always felt the most underrated members of the Super Bowl Steelers were Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith (in fact I think Smith deserves strong Hall of Fame consideration). Heyward may yet work out at defensive end, but Keisel is aging at the other end…and more importantly, nose tackle has become an issue since Hampton was let go. McClendon just isn’t getting it done. I think this team DESPERATELY needs to draft a run-stuffing nose tackle next spring. Your thoughts?
Rick Evans Aaron Smith is one of my favorite all time defensive players and the most underrated players of all time. When they lost Smith to injury, and then to retirement, teams exploited that to no end.
Hampton was/is a dozer that needs replacing. I really like Cam Heyward, and he’s really been turning it up a few notches as of late. Keisel I love, but he’s into his 12th year. He has some gas in the tank for a couple more years, but someone will need to step up, or drafted for that position also. The rest of the defensive line leaves me to scratch my brain a good deal. There is some talent there, but they seem complacent in their individual play.
One of the reasons Dick LeBeau has gotten away with using zone coverage in the secondary for so long is because of a quality line and line backing core that could quickly pressure the QB. Up until last week, that just wasn’t happening.
Dave Glass Couldn’t agree more – whether its scheme, talent or both, the pressure has just disappeared for much of the season (and much of last season, frankly).
I know the LBs gather the sack totals but I think this again comes back to the d-line…they are too easily blocked 1-on-1 which allows offenses to scheme for Jones/Worilds/Woodley. No one EVER blocked Aaron Smith 1-on-1!
Rick Evans Absolutely. That’s why guys like Hampton and Smith were so valuable. Those two alone took four to five guys to block them leaving the LB’s free reign to blitz the QB. Throw Troy into that mix, and well, you know the history.
Dave Glass On to the last – and in my view, worst – piece of the defensive puzzle, the secondary. Corner has been something of an issue for years, but the front seven pressure and elite safety play has masked much of that…now, with Polamalu looking a little old, Ryan Clark looking VERY old (he’s done in my view) and all corners not named Ike Taylor getting TORCHED regularly, I believe this unit needs a complete overhaul. Taylor is probably the best player in the secondary now…and he’s 34 next season!
Rick Evans There is a lot of age in that secondary right now. Troy is aging, but seems better this year than the last four combined. I’ve always liked Clark because he’s an intelligent player, but has been making a few rookie mistakes this year, and that could be just him overcompensating for his age. Also, he’s one or two concussion away from retirement.
Honestly, I’ve never been a fan of Ike Taylor. Yes, he goes against the toughest receivers every week, and I applaud him for doing so, but many times that I can recall, I’ve seen him make bone headed moves, miss certain interceptions, and get be on quick outs more times than I care to count. He’ll have one shining game, and then the next, be somewhere else. I do respect the man for his efforts but I get frustrated with his inconsistent play.
Having said that, I don’t exactly believe it’s all Ike’s fault, or the secondary players overall. I believe, dare I say it and incur the wrath of the Steeler Nation, the secondary play calling by Lebeau.
Dave Glass Well clearly LeBeau deserves blame, just as he deserved credit when the Steelers were the best defense in the league. I do think his schemes have become a bit predictable and he has failed to adjust accordingly…but I have to say, I think this is more about the talent, or lack thereof, than it is about the coordinator.
Rick Evans They have a few corners that could be really good, if given the opportunity to play more man to man. Gay, Both Allens and Golden could be really good if Dick would let go of the reins and let them play man to man. They shine every time they do.
Dave Glass OK, MAJOR disagreement time: I think William Gay is one of the worst corners in the game. Cortez Allen I like, yes, but Gay just isn’t any good. He was one of the few defenders who looked bad to me against Buffalo, and he was destroyed by Brady.
Rick Evans As I mentioned, the Steelers were a feared defense in years past, and yes LeBeau deserves a lot of credit, but most times it was because of the front seven being able to quickly get to the QB with pressure that allowed Dick to get away with using Cover 2 zone. Now that it is not happening, most QB’s can pick apart any zone coverage you throw out there.
Last week proved my theory that man to man coverage is needed and more effective than zone. Zone is designed for one player to cover more than one defender and has never been truly effective without a solid pass rush.
William Gay is terrible at zone coverage, and that seems to be the only time he’s on the field. I’ve seen a few bright spots with him in the past when he plays man to man. Unfortunately, because of the coverages called, he’s had more negative than positive, and that’s what most people overall pick up on.
Dave Glass Well I agree that more man is called for. We may have to disagree on Gay. I think we can agree that the next great Steeler safety is not on the roster now…they REALLY need to spend a mid-to-high pick on a free safety next spring in my opinion.
Now, to finish up…I see this team as very much in transition. They have HUGE cap issues to deal with next spring, their core is aging, and too many of their draftees have been medicore-to-bust over the past four seasons. I think they will need 2-3 years of solid drafting and personnel moves to truly contend again. What do you think?
Rick Evans Yes, that is a definite concern.
I haven’t looked at the cap issues, but they are definitely in transition. This takes time and I hope the fans can have a heart and understand. I really thought bringing in Haley and re-establishing the run was definitely needed. Earlier this year, I regretted that thought, but perhaps it’s just part of the transition and instead of lowering the boom on Haley as I was ready to do, give him additional time in the next year or so to better develop the passing game along with the run game.
Dave Glass I disagree on Haley, between the offense’s lack of TDs and his disturbing off-field issues I think it’s time for him to go. In any case, I think there will be changes made at all levels of the franchise before this team truly contends again.
Rick Evans I know what you’re saying about Haley, and I felt like that earlier this season. Let’s see how the season plays out and go from there.
For next season, I would concentrate draft picks on offensive tackles, a defensive nose tackle and the rest on the secondary. As far as a quarterback to develop a few years down the road, look at some hungry walk-ons from Division II, just like they did with Ben. Heck, do it with all the positions. That’s what Cowher did for many of the players that put on the black and gold and shined on the field.
Dave Glass Agreed on that!
Rick, I want to thank you again for helping with this – you’ve made some great points and I’ve really enjoyed it!
Rick Evans Thanks! It’s been fun!
Dave Glass can be reached at email@example.com.