So … about that Steelers defense

This early season bye week, annoying as it is, probably could not have come at a better time for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Not only will it give injured defensive starters James Harrison and Troy Polamalu another week to (hopefully) get closer to returning the lineup, but it also might give the defense as a whole an opportunity to figure out just what in the hell is going on out there. Because right now it’s not pretty, and it might be time to start considering the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the 2012 Steelers are not a very good defensive team.

Through three weeks the two non-Mark Sanchez led offenses they’ve faced have carved them up, including one led by old AFC North friend Carson Palmer as he orchestrated a second half rally that steamrolled through the Steelers defense with alarming ease. It’s one thing to allow Peyton Manning to do that to you (even if it was his first meaningful action in more than a year), but it’s something else entirely to allow Carson Palmer and that group of wide receivers to do it.

The problems and concerns are not difficult to spot.

For one, they are not forcing turnovers which is a problem that goes all the way back to the start of last season when the Steelers finished as one of the worst teams in the league in the takeaway department. The defense has forced just two this season (not counting the special teams turnover against the Jets) with only one of them coming by way of the interception, and that only happened because the Oakland receiver tripped and fell on a baseball diamond, a hazard that does not exist in 31 NFL stadiums. That’s not exactly encouraging.

That problem, along with the way Palmer and Manning were able to throw all over them, comes from an almost nonexistent pass rush. Not only did Palmer only get sacked once on Sunday, he was rarely touched or saw any sort of pressure. The defensive line isn’t generating any kind of a push (maybe it’s time to give Steve McClendon and Cameron Heyward more than the eight snaps they saw on Sunday in Oakland?), and with Harrison sidelined (and seemingly not any closer to returning) opposing offenses are able to load up on LaMarr Woodley’s side of the field because Jason Worilds and Chris Carter aren’t exactly striking fear into NFL offensive coordinators.

You certainly can’t blame the workload they’ve had to face because the Steelers offense has controlled the ball more than every team in the league with the exception of the Houston Texans. The defense has spent less time on the field than almost every other team in the league and is STILL giving up over 25 points per game. According to Football Outsiders’ metrics they’ve been among the worst in the league (not that you needed fancy numbers to tell you that).

The hope, obviously, is that the return of Harrison and Polamalu can fix some (if not all) of these problems. But there’s a big, and probably obvious, question that needs to be asked here: What if they don’t?

What if they come back and are never really 100 percent healthy? Or nowhere near as dominant as we remember them to be?

In the case of Harrison we’re talking about a 35-year-old linebacker with a bad knee. Expecting him to instantly step in and start pushing left tackles around and strip-sacking quarterbacks might be expecting too much. Polamalu’s durability has been an issue for a few years now, after 10 years of playing one of the most physical (and at times reckless) styles in the league it wouldn’t be a stretch to think he’s closer to the end of his career than his prime.

If that turns out to be the case, and given the makeup of the Steelers offense, would they be further ahead to just commit to becoming the New England Patriots circa 2010-2011 and try to win every game 40-30? We already saw a taste of that on Sunday when Mike Tomlin decided to go for it on fourth-and-one from his 29-yard-line with three minutes to play in a tie game. That’s a move right out of the Bill Belichick playbook, and even if it failed it would have been the correct call (though, Tomlin would have no doubt been grilled for it, much like Belichick when he made a similar call back in 2010). That was a coach that knew his only chance to win that game was if his offense didn’t leave the field. And with the way the Steelers defense has played so far, that might be their best chance this season.

It’s not like they don’t have the weapons and playmakers to play that style of game. Just because they’re the Pittsburgh Steelers doesn’t mean they’re always going to be a great defensive team by default. Their best players are in the passing game, so why not just put it in their hands and see how far they can take you?

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  • Cols714

    Sure and they were in position in both games to win it this way. Both times the offense had the ball with the idea of going down and scoring to win it. Unfortunately it didn’t work out.

    I miss the old fearsome defense.

  • David

    Our problems may be deeply rooted in the 2008 draft class (caught with a keen eye by Kaboly at the Trib-Review).
    Mendenhall, Sweed, Davis, Hills, Dixon, Humpal, Mundy.

    I don’t even want to give a grade for that class.

  • Dick Leblowit

    What do you guys think about my scheme vs. personnel? My 4th quarter swap of short gains for time isn’t working!

  • Rob D

    I think the STeelers are a very borderline playoff team if they get some breaks. This is not a mirage..the D is that bad. It started with the lack of turnovers last year as a sort of warning about imminent collapse and has continued with the comical lack of cohesion and talent of the present year. Personally, at this point I don’t think they win 10 games. Something drastic needs doing..and I won’t say fire Lebeau but it passed through my vacuous mind a few times. In addition to being talent deprived, the D lacks the fire and emotion you’d expect out of a Steelers defense. Football is about bringing it. They aren’t.How can that NOT be on the coaches? I’ve watched a lot of games this year and its hard to reconcile the fire and animated excitement D’s like Arizona, Houston and the 49ers bring to the field with the dead effort of ours in the late going of games. I know those teams are younger and more talented..but they also have a whole lot of “try” Can’t say the same for our team. Hope that changes but I don’t see how.

  • Randy Steele

    I’m not sure what we’re suppose to say or think. My first inclination is to give the guys more time to sort this out. And I will.

    But it’s tough because I just don’t see the talent on defense, do you? This is the first time since the 1980s that I’ve looked at this team and found the cupboard bare in so many many spots. It’s kinda scary.

    There’s lot of rage in the Nation right now about the Steelers’ many failed draft picks in recent years. Certainly, compared to the Ravens, that anger seems justified. Who are the up-and-coming play-makers on this team? Beats me. I like Tomlin, but I think he justifiably deserves some criticism here. Still, I’ll hang fire and wait and watch and see.

    As I noted in a post on Jim Wexell’s site, this team seems to me a lot like one of Carson Palmers’ old Bengal squads: Lots of aerial fireworks on offense combined with a crash-and-burn defense. At best, teams like that go about 9-7. (Of course, last year’s Patriots play havoc with that sample.) But I don’t know if these Steelers are even that good.

    And for what it’s worth, I’m also angry with the Steelers’ press, or media, or whatever it’s called these days–those people supposedly responsible for covering this team. There weren’t even the slightest inklings (remember when stuff used to be actually published in ink?) about this team’s substantial defensive woes during pre-season.

    It’s disgusting. What a sorry bunch of losers these so-called reporters are.

    • Rob D

      I am genuinely concerned about this team. I went from being very optimistic about winning 11 or 12 games and beating out the Ravens who I had at 8 or 9 wins TOPS. I was way out of bounds. ARe we watching the 80′s re-occur and the D’s near collapse ruining Ben’s prime years? Who knows…I don’t.

      I really didn’t see it coming and perhaps the reporting around the Steelers is partly to blame. I looked at the blend of youth and vets and thought we’d be a very good D..Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown looked like answers (I still like CA..he’s a keeper) Heyward and Hood added to steady vet Keisel and Hampton. Harrison and Woodley doing their bookend thing and Foote filling the Farrior role at least against the run. Timmons finally breaking out completely (I was optimistic,,now I think he’s a near bust ) Polamalu and Clark..very nice tandem. It all looked pretty darn good. But it’s not..Without the aging Harrison and Polamalu, there’s not a single guy to fear for an O other than Woodley on a good day. I read about teams not even worrying about Ziggy…he can be easily handled one on one most snaps. Someone did a breakdown and it looks like 3/4 of the time he’s just stalemated by his opposing number. Not good. Heyward should be playing a lot in this D. On it goes..when these things go bad they tend to collapse in a heap.

      We lack playmakers. Only way to improve that is to draft higher. Is this the year we take the playoffs off for a “greater good”..much like when we picked up a certain Big Ben? I don’t want that…but I can’t see this team outscoring other teams given our propensity to shed O-line starters like a snake sheds its skin. We are a couple of injuries away from watching Beachum and Legs do their thing. I need to lie down..

    • GlennWa

      Randy, I’m not sure I understand your gripe with the media. This is NFL football– not world events– and there are no absolutes in either expectations or judgments. Some of us in here and in the media have been saying for years that the defense is old and would eventually collapse (in the absence of upgrades), and that while such a relapse is inevitable we just didn’t know exactly when it would come (I thought it would be last season, but I was wrong). Others like Ted have been even more negative, and gotten beaten up for it. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m not remotely surprised by our performance over three games, much less looking for someone to blame for not outright predicting it (which doesn’t matter much in the entire scheme of things regardless).

      • Cols714

        I don’t know about the media but I do know that people have been predicting the demise of the defense for about the last 4 years. And then every year the Steelers field a pretty good defense.

        It may be happening this year, which sucks obviously. But you have to remember that the people who have been predicting this have been wrong for years, including Ted. That they may be right this year does not erase being wrong for the past three or so.

        • GlennWa

          That’s mostly true, if you ignore the 2009 collapse, or other evidence of downward trending including last year’s playoff debacle. That’s not my point though. My point is that apparently you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. If you predict mediocrity you’re a hack mired in negativity, and if you don’t– why didn’t you tell us this was coming?!
          The way I look at the NFL is that everybody is a .500 team until they prove to us that they’re better or worse than that. Right now I think this is a team headed for an 8-8 season. That’s not being negative, or cynical. I don’t *want* to feel entitled, or to be spoiled. I understand how hard it is to consistently be a playoff team.

          • Cols714

            That’s a pretty good way to look at it. And the difference between being 8-8 and 12-4 is usually pretty small. For example our 2008 season we won a bunch of games late or by small margins, including the Super Bowl.

            Unless Timmons, Worilds, Keisel, and Hood start playing better, I agree that 8-8 seems pretty likely.

  • David

    I dunno know. I’ll wait until Troy and Silverback get back before I cast judgement.
    Of course, will I be waiting until after the bye, or for much longer?

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    The defense does seem to have three levels of issues: key injuries, insufficient development of the younger players and worse performance by several guys than we’ve seen from them recently.

    Two seasons ago, Troy was DPOY and Silverback was third in the voting.  Four years ago, Silverback was DPOY and Troy was fifth.  We made the Super Bowl in both seasons.  These are not just good players, they are among the best in the game at any position.  No offense or defense could lose two players of the year and be an elite unit.  Hopefully both will be healthy soon.  If not, several defensive players will have to take leaps, or the offense as a who will have to become truly elite, for us to be title contenders.  

    It is also time for the young guys on D to start showing that the standard is the standard.  In the last 5 drafts, on offense we’ve added Mendenhall, Wallace, Brown, Pouncey, Gilbert and DeCastro.  That’s 6 starters who are all good or great (or likely will be soon). And that doesn’t include Sanders, Adams or Rainey.  Over those same drafts, on defense, the top 9 guys we’ve added are Hood, Lewis, Worilds, Sylvester, Carter, Heyward, Brown, Allen and Carter.  To me, they are all serviceable pieces, but arguably none has turned into the level of any of the top 6 or so new guys on O.  

    It would also help if guys like Ike, Juan and Keisel started playing like they have in the last year or two.  If the only thing that changed about the season was that those three guys played better, we could easily be 3-0.

    A last thought about remaining optimistic: last year we started 2-2, and that included getting blown out by the Ravens and winning by three against the Colts (aka The Curtis Painter No-Stars).  But we went 12-4 and were a play away from being the top seed in the AFC playoffs.  We can still turn this season around.

  • Cols714

    I really think we are all probably panicking prematurely, however the defense is probably not going to be as good this year as in recent years. You can’t subtract James Harrison and Troy Polamalu and still have the same level as defense.

    That being said, we were worrying last year at this time as well yet we finished 12-4. Our only losses being against the Ravens, 49ers (away), and Texans (away). Considering that the Ravens and 49ers made the title games and could have easily met in the Super Bowl if not for some fatalistic bounces and the Texans were considered the best team in the NFL until Schaub went down, that means we were pretty good last year.

    I suspect that we will also be pretty good this year. But I do agree with all of the concerns. It doesn’t bode well going forward that the replacements for Aaron Smith and James Harrison don’t look like they are going to be able to cut it.

    • Rob D

      I think a lot of us are in shock that the D is apparently so bad. Many of us thought the trouble would mostly be about the O trying to transition behind a new OC etc. The D getting reamed out by CArson Palmer just didn’t compute. We have a great offensive day against the Raiders and yet we get smoked in the 4th with a D that looked badly overmatched and poorly prepared in terms of scheme. Immediately you see the flaws in everything. A couple of solid wins would probably right the ship and get everyone’s blood pressure down.. I hope that will happen. One thing’s for sure..they STeelers are on notice that they are going to have to fight to keep their position as one of the elite teams in the league. Right now, they don’t look the part.And there are a half dozen, young, hungry teams who do. But it’s early.

  • Rob D

    Steelers have zero buzz around them. Since they seem to thrive under those conditions, I hope they come out firing at 1 pm on Sunday. They need to have used these 2 weeks to get a handle on what’s wrong with the D and to tweak the offense. 3 big names return and we’ll need superior performance from each of them to be talked about as an elite team once again. If there is one thing about the STeelers under Tomlin, they aren’t afraid to make changes when things arent’ working.

    I want to see what Lebeau’s D does against this Eagles team. They have a terrific running back who will be a stern test for them. Not worred about Vick and Co as much but I wasn’t worried about Tebow in the playoffs either…lol..

  • Rob D

    QOTD (in honor of HSS..RIP)
    What key player from each unit (D, O, ST) has to improve his play the most in order for the STeelers to be contenders?
    Defense: I say Keisel..He’s either hurt or “done”…I hope it’s the former because I’ve long admired his competitive nature. But if it’s the latter, Does Heyward start getting into more games or even take over as a starter? Seems unlikely but stranger things have happened. There’s even talk that McClendon is much better suited to DE than NT, where his weakness against the run is becoming obvious.

    I don’t have any idea about those musings/internet rumours,,but I think the simplest solution is for Keisel to return to the level he previously played at. Perhaps this 2 week break will help him heal up/improve. We’ll know sooon enough whether Father Time has caught up to him.

    Offense: Gilbert …I think that RT is his best position (and so does Tunch Ilkin) and it’s time he started dominating. Perhaps all the talk about him playing LT got him less focused for the season than he would have been otherwise. He’s not looked like the same player to me this year. But he’s a quality talent..time to prove it. We need him to anchor that side of the line and cover up for the blob known as Foster at RG…lol..
    Thought about selecting Colon for this category..but I have no hope for him at all. Is he truly any better than Kemo at this point? I think he’s on the ground a lot more than Kemo.

    Special Teams: Sylvester… One of my fave players on ST’s….hope he gives us a lift as he is the emotional leader of that unit, from all reports.

    • Cols714

      Good question
      Offense: Colon. Being an overpaid Kemo is bad bad news. I guess all those people saying he should move to guard might just possibly have been wrong.
      Defense: I’m going with Timmons. He was a beast in 2010, less good last year, and not making much of an impact this year.
      ST: I got nothing, maybe better KO returns?

      • Rob D

        Timmons is a good choice..he’s a super athlete who perhaps isn’t as smart as the Farrior’s of the world… That’s where great coaching can make a guy better IMO…aim the missile and let him do what he does.

        After watching the Eagles coverage teams last week..we may score a few ST”s TD’s THIS week. Come on Rainey..time to shine.