Probably the two biggest areas Pittsburgh’s Defense struggled with the most over the last decade have been: Defending in the short and intermediate passing game when spread out against a well-rounded Receiving Corps, and defending against Backs and Ends through the air as well. New England and Tom Brady picked them apart in essentially every matchup, Rich Gannon destroyed them back on in 2002 and almost set all sorts of N.F.L. passing records, Drew Brees had his way with the Defense in 2010, Dick LeBeau’s schemes and numerous mental mistakes cost the Steelers against Tim Tebow of all people, and Aaron Rodgers would have had an even more incredible day in Super Bowl XLV had his Receivers held on to some extremely catchable balls. Granted, these are just a few of the most famous examples, but for the sake of brevity and my own sanity I will not drudge up any more painful memories.
Thankfully, it has seemed like Dick LeBeau, the rest of the Defensive Staff, and the Front Office have decided to do something about the Steelers’ Defensive struggles during the last couple of seasons. With the Steelers’ evident Defensive weaknesses on tape, and the League moving more towards a pass-first game, improvements have been made to the roster, and it appears that the wheels have been set in motion to bolster and fix Pittsburgh’s Pass Defense for years to come. Thus, today I would like to list what I believe are the Top Three Reasons that the Steelers will be an improved Defense against the pass and explain why I feel this way.
Now I am sure that many of you readers are saying, “Improvement? What improvement? This team ranked 1st against the Pass in terms of Passing Yards last season?!” Let me just stop you right there and say that when a team plays the likes of Blaine Gabbert, Tyler Palko, a late-30′s Matt Hasselbeck, Alex Smith, Tarvaris Jackson, Curtis Painter, Kevin Kolb, Kellen Clemens, a Rookie “Ginger Spice” and Colt McCoy both twice, like the Steelers did in 2011, you are bound to have success as a Pass Defense simply because the Quarterback play for Three-Fourths of your schedule is either below-average to bottom of the barrel talent-wise, past their prime, young and inexperienced, on a team with a “run-first” Offense, or some combination of any of these things. I hate to take anything away from what this Defense accomplished (LeBeau finally had a solid man-coverage game plan against the Patriots), but the overall statistics did not tell the whole story. Anyways, before I go off on a tangent let’s get to the countdown:
3. Outside Linebackers Should (Hopefully) Be Healthy
This is a big one because at some point last season Pittsburgh’s Top Three pass rushers in the forms of LaMarr Woodley, James Harrison, and Jason Worilds were all injured, not at full-strength, or in Deebo’s case suspended for one game. At 100 percent, this rotation of Outside Linebackers forms one of the most formidable trios in the League, but when Lawrence Timmons is forced to play out of position and pick up the slack because one or more of these guys is on the bench, the team, and most of all the pass-rush suffers.
The Steelers logged only 35.0 Sacks last season, 13.0 less than in 2010 (48.0) when they went to the Super Bowl. Harrison and Woodley both notched 9.0 Sacks apiece but Deebo only played in 11 games all regular season, and Woodley only played in 10 himself. Worilds stepped in and showed some nice ability when called upon and registered 3.0 Sacks, but he was limited to only 12 games and was hindered by the fact there were no OTA’s and offseason workouts as he continued his transition from Defensive End to Outside Linebacker before his second season.
But with all three hopefully healthy, only good things can come of it. Because with all three at full strength, all three can bring pressure and help collapse the pocket. The more heat brought on the opposition’s Quarterback, the more liable they are to either fold like a lawn chair or make bad decisions. The more this happens the more pressure is taken off of the Secondary to make plays and stay on their men, and frees them up to make plays and play the ball. When this happens, well, we all know that good things happen when Polamalu is allowed to do what he does. With two Pro Bowlers and one young and talented edge rusher to spell them when need be healthy, Pittsburgh’s Defense should reap the benefits, especially when playing against the pass.
2. New Inside Linebackers Can Pass Cover
While they have been a bit under the radar, the Steelers have made a couple of acquisitions at the Linebacker position which should help them defend the pass in the coming years. One such acquisition is Brandon Johnson, and I was a fan of the team signing him when they stated that they were interested. If you would like to read my post from last month on why signing Johnson would be a good move for the Steelers, follow this link here. But if you do not want to read it and want an abridged version, one of the biggest reasons I thought Johnson would be a good addition is the fact that he can help out on passing downs and did a solid job against the pass for the Bengals during his career there.
At 6’5″ 245 lbs. Johnson is an imposing figure which has the size and strength to matchup with some of the more physical Tight Ends and be an imposing figure to clog up passing lanes. And hey, Johnson might even give the team a Sack or two if asked to come through the A-Gap once and a while on passing downs if some sort of Zone-Blitz is employed. Overall, the addition of a veteran with a skill-set that Pittsburgh definitely is in need of (including Special Teams) puts a smile on my face.
Although Johnson acquisition may help in the present, the player which many in “Steeler Nation” have become particularly excited about is Rookie Linebacker Sean Spence. And Spence’s athleticism, upside, and ability to play the pass are reasons to get any Steelers fan excited. At 5’11″ 231 lbs., Spence might not be the most physically imposing specimen, but make no mistake, this guy is speedy and can be a great equalizer against the opposition’s more athletic Backs and Ends in the short and intermediate passing games. If Spence pans out and is an effective option on 3rd Downs and passing situations, it could be a huge weight off of the shoulders of the other Linebackers and the Secondary in general.
No more will Tight Ends be running free across the middle, and no more will Quarterbacks have their safety valves to go to with eons of space after getting rid of the ball before being flattened by Deebo or Woodley. Granted, Spence is likely a year away from contributing on a consistent basis on the Defensive side of the ball as he will likely spend his first year on Special Teams and transitioning to a 3-4 Defense. However, Spence has the tools to be a very effective weapon for Pittsburgh and should factor in greatly into their future plans to stop opponents’ passing games.
1. Cornerback Position Finally Has Talented Depth
Across the board, the Steelers have some imposing and talented players at the Cornerback position for the first time in a very long time. Going four-deep with Ike Taylor, Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen, and Curtis Brown, each player is at or over 6’0 and is in the neighborhood of 200 lbs.. Each player understands how, or is learning how to play Zone in LeBeau’s Defense. All are big enough and more than physical enough to lock up and play man against Receivers if need be. And best of all, every guy is tough enough to help support in the run game when the time comes.
While the Steelers appear to have four solid and emerging Corners now, it was not always the case. In fact, two years ago it was not even like that, and the Steelers paid a heavy price when teams like New England, Green Bay, and New Orleans would spread the Defense out and attack Bryant McFadden, William Gay, Anthony Madison, and the rest of the Secondary. To those teams it was: Why bother challenging Ike Taylor unless it is necessary when you can get an easy 7 Yards per pass going after the other players? Well now, it is not so much the case as the three Corners behind Taylor are hungry for playing time and to prove themselves.
Lewis seemed to finally get his head on straight last season, and is the front-runner to replace William Gay for the #2 Cornerback spot after spending last season as the Nickelback. Allen, whose size and coverage ability could be best used against Tight End heavy teams like New England, Cincinnati, and Baltimore, figures to compete with Lewis for the #2 role and should see some more snaps than in his Rookie year where he did a nice job in some Dime sub-packages. And Brown is a tough guy who should be able to help out in the slot and get physical with some of the more smaller, possession-type pass catchers.
The upgrades have been made talent-wise, and hopefully the younger guys are able to step up this season. The pressure will likely be on Lewis the most as he will be an Unrestricted Free Agent, and playing for a new contract in 2013. Thus, holding off 2011′s 3rd and 4th Round picks will be an absolute must. Pressure aside, if two or all three of these guys behind Ike can improve and show up on a consistent basis this year, the opposition will have think twice before immediately beginning to dink-and-dunk on this Defense down the field.
Are Pittsburgh’s problems against the pass all solved? Heck no, and if they were I probably would not be writing this article. The Cornerback depth might be talented, but they are still a bit young at the position and Allen and Brown will have much more on their plates this year in terms of responsibility. Plus, there is almost zero experienced depth behind Polamalu, Ryan Clark, and Ryan Mundy at the Safety position. Spence is only a Rookie as well, and we will likely have to wait close to a year to see what he can do if LeBeau decides not to play him or does not believe he is ready to play in Nickel and Dime sub-packages yet.
Regardless of the fact that there is still work to do, one thing is clear: the Steelers have begun to fix their issues defending the passing game and seem to be headed on the right track. Only time will tell if my optimism is either spot-on, misguided, or somewhere in between. However, I cannot wait to see what the future has in store for Pittsburgh’s pass defense and whether or not the upgrades will work.
So what do you readers think? Do you think the Steelers’ pass defense will improve? Are there any reasons I did not discuss? Let me know.