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?