Steelers Defense: Who Makes the Splash Plays? And Should We Care?

Mike Tomlin and the Steelers are always talking about splash plays. Otherwise known as big plays. Plays that not only change games, but also win games. On defense that can be anything from interceptions, to forced fumbles, to tackles in the backfield, to sacks and so on and so forth.

I went back over the 2010 stat sheet and tallied up all of the splash plays (interceptions, sacks, tackles for loss, pass defenses, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries) to figure out the leaders on a position-by-position basis, and to also ask the question: should we care who makes them?

These numbers also include plays made on kick and punt coverages.

And away we go…

Defensive line: Brett Keisel (13), Ziggy Hood (5), Nick Eason (3), Casey Hampton (2), Chris Hoke (2), Aaron Smith (1), Steve McClendon (1)

Linebackers: James Harrison (30), Lawrence Timmons (26), LaMarr Woodley (25), James Farrior (18), Keyaron Fox (6), Jason Worilds (3), Stevenson Sylvester (3), Larry Foote (2)

Defensive Backs: Troy Polamalu (26), William Gay (17), Bryant McFadden (16), Ike Taylor (15), Ryan Clark (10), Ryan Mundy (4), Anthony Madison (3), Keenan Lewis (2), Will Allen (1), Crezdon Butler (0)

Some thoughts…

1) This is the third time in the past four years — and second year in a row — that Brett Keisel has topped the list for defensive linemen. Do we underrate him? Ask a Steelers fan who the best defensive linemen on the team is and most of the responses will probably be either Aaron Smith (when healthy) or Casey Hampton, with Keisel, more often than not, coming in at No. 3.

If big plays are so important to winning games (and I think we all agree they are) should Keisel get more respect? I guess this is where the line between the objective (the numbers) and the subjective (what you see) gets blurred. What Casey Hampton does in the middle of the line is invaluable. But it never shows up in the numbers. There isn’t a stat (at least not one that gets tracked with any regularity) to tell us how many times he eats up two or three offensive linemen to open up a rush lane for Lawrence Timmons, or leave Keisel one-on-one on the outside. One could also argue that a lot of Keisel’s success comes from having Smith on the opposite side of the line. But as we all know Smith hasn’t exactly been a regular in the lineup over the past four years, so he’s done a lot of it playing across from Nick Eason and a young Ziggy Hood.

2) The linebackers and Troy Polamalu make a ton of big plays. Nobody should be surprised by this. Though, the gap between the Timmons, Woodley and Harrison trio and James Farrior is a little bigger than I thought it would be. Also, consider this: Lawrence Timmons was snubbed when it came to Pro Bowl selections this season, losing out to New England’s Jerod Mayo and Baltimore’s Ray Lewis.

Their splash plays in 2010? Mayo: 14. Lewis: 17.

3) OK, the cornerbacks. There isn’t a single person that watched the 2010 Steelers and would think for one second that William Gay or Bryant McFadden had a better season than Ike Taylor. So these numbers seem a bit dubious at first glance. Should they? My first instinct is it doesn’t make any sense, but after thinking about it for half of a second, it does. It makes a ton of sense, actually.  Our opinion of Taylor is pretty simple: He doesn’t make many big plays, but he also does a pretty solid job of taking his guy out of the other team’s offense. The reason McFadden and Gay break up more passes and intercept more passes is because they get thrown at more often (and because Taylor can’t catch. At all. This is a fact). Way more often. They simply have more opportunities to make those plays. Consider in 2010 that Darrelle Revis only made 12 “splash plays.” Oakland’s Nnamdi Asomugha, regarded as perhaps the best cover corner in the entire league, made just six. You would have to be on some hardcore drugs to take McFadden or Gay over Asomugha, who has picked off just three passes over the past four years. Why so few?

Because nobody throws at him.

The other factor as far as the Steelers corners are concerned is how they’re used within Dick LeBeau’s defense. Taylor isn’t going to be used as a blitzer as often as Gay or McFadden (exception: AFC Championship game). Gay, for example, made four plays in the backfield this season (two sacks, two tackles for loss) which obviously added to his total.

Are big plays important? They’re very important. They’re huge, and teams that make them win games. But what’s not always important, at least in some cases, is who makes them. That sounds a little too simplistic (of course you don’t care who makes the plays; just so somebody makes them) but my point is that sometimes your best player isn’t going to be the guy in a position to make that play. Some guys like Polamalu and Timmons are so dynamic and athletic that it’s next to impossible for an offense to simply avoid their side of the field. Mainly because they don’t have a “side of the field.” You never know where they’re going to be and they’re going to find a way to make that play. That’s what makes them so special.

When you’re dealing with a cornerback or a defensive lineman it’s a little easier for an offense to say, “OK, we can go away from him.” That’s why Antonio Cromartie made 21 of these plays for the Jets to only 13 for Revis. Is Cromartie better than Revis? No. He just had more opportunities, mainly because teams refused to go at Revis on the other side.

Ike Taylor was the Steelers best cornerback in 2010, but he wasn’t always the guy in the position to make that big play. Casey Hampton may, in fact, be the best and most valuable defensive lineman on Steelers roster. But he’s not going to be the guy to make that play. That responsibility is going to fall on somebody else.

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  • Anonymous

    Counting plays and comparing totals implies that all splash plays are more or less equal.

    (I have replied as a guest because Disqus is not working properly.)

  • Anonymous

    Counting plays and comparing totals implies that all splash plays are more or less equal.

    (I have replied as a guest because Disqus is not working properly.)

  • Grw1960

    One of the things that has always impressed me about Keisel. Is his awareness of where the football is at all times. He is the best DL player at knocking down passes at the line of scrimmage.
    If the Steelers had more players like him doing that. We wouldn’t have to worry as much about spread offenses with accurate passing QBs.

  • Cols714

    Timmons definitely got snubbed. He’s basically as good as Patrick Willis and much better than Jerod Mayo, who I think is overrated due to his draft position and the team he plays for.