There’s a new ‘crew’ in the mighty city of Pittsburgh. They have the potency like the Pirates’ ‘Killer B’s’ of the 90′s – but hail from the Steelers and cause losses instead of wins. Yes, they’ve only been around for 48 hours, but already they have made themselves known and will be the bain of Steeler Nation for the 2012 season. They are known as the ‘Stubborn Steelers’ and they are the reason for Sunday night’s loss to the Broncos.
Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau
Pretty much the ringleader of this group, LeBeau is the stubbornest of the stubborn. Glimpses of the alter ego of the famed defensive coordinator appeared in the Wild Card loss to the Denver Broncos. Refusing to adjust the overall game plan against Tim Tebow’s brand new ability to throw the football, LeBeau dug in his heels and stuck with the ‘defend the run and dare Tebow to beat us with his arm’ game plan. The Broncos torched the Steelers in the 2nd half and in OT to win that game. Many blamed individual players. Many blamed points being left on the field by the Steeler offense. And though those two things might be partially true – the fact that your senior DC of 30+ years in the league does not change a game plan when things aren’t working is truly and utterly stubborn (and stupid).
Fast forward to 2012 and the alter ego has become one with the man himself. The defense looked good in the first quarter by stopping Manning and the Broncos on several possessions. That was, in large part, due to the effective blitzing up the middle that allowed guys like Larry Foote and Jason Worilds to find some gaps and stop the run and put pressure on Manning. How did the defense blitz up the middle – by disguising and using Troy Polamalu ‘in the box.’ This worked well for a while until Manning was able to call audibles based on where Polamalu lined up. Once the Broncos figured that out, the defense looked confused in coverages.
LeBeau’s knee jerk adjustment – put Polamalu 20 yards deep and keep him there. That allowed the Broncos to run the ball and dink and dunk with quick outs the rest of the night. LeBeau was stubborn (or scared) and rarely had Polamalu come up for a blitz in critical situations. And, instead of adjusting his blitzing scheme altogether to throw different packages at Manning, LeBeau only sent 4-5 men continuously – even if there was two wide, he never sent enough to attack Manning or stop the run. He lost all faith in his corners after Keenan Lewis (we’ll get to him in a hot second) showed he couldn’t cover William Howard Taft on a hot day in July. So, LeBeau didn’t want to get burned on a deep ball. I get it, but if there’s one thing we all learned from guys like Manning and Tom Brady (see: 2011 season) is that you put the pressure on and keep it on, or they will chew you up and spit you out.
Bad form from LeBeau. Should this stubborn LeBeau stick around the rest of the season, you can expect this Steelers defense to be in a world of pain and the team’s record to get no higher than 8-8.
Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley
New kid on the block, Todd Haley, is our next member of this small gang of irritations. For as much as the Steeler offense looked good last night, it also looked pretty lack luster – especially in the play calling department. I’m happy to say I was pleased to see not one…. NOT ONE…. bubble screen on Sunday. A mighty breath of fresh air. However, what we didn’t see was a coordinator who took what was working and exploit it for everything that it was worth – around the realm of 14-17 points I’d say. The Broncos middle of the field was pretty terrible last night. The linebackers could not cover our TE’s or RB’s very well across the middle (hell even Mike Wallace had some good room to catch a nice slant route pass). The secondary was so focused on containing Brown and Wallace, that they could not help in coverage in the middle, which left guys like Heath Miller, Leonard Pope (when he was on the field), and the running backs open. OPEN. He caught every pass that was thrown to him … well ok he caught every pass thrown accurately that hit his hands. Haley should have been calling Miller’s number so much last night that the team would need a 50lb tank of oxygen and a stretcher to cart him off the field due to exhaustion. Yet, Miller was only utilized on third and longs and on what should have been an easy 6 points on a too low of a pass from Big Ben. 50 yards in 4 catches. How could you not throw to him and Pope all night? The same could be said for any RB screens or outlet passes. When they did happen, there was always a positive gain except for a dump off to Chris Rainey.
Play calling was suspect all night, and the fact that the offense moved the chains on 3rd and longs is something fans should not get used to. Haley refused or (worse) did not recognize the play calling that was actually working. Instead, he stubbornly ran the ball on almost every first down. Numerous times they went, run run pass. This is play calling that got him in trouble in KC. It became predictable for the defense and is something I was worried about when he came to town.
The Steelers chewed up the clock like in the olden days (‘olden days’ being 8 years ago), but it wasn’t pretty. The only time the team seemed to get some momentum is when they went no huddle and Big Ben called the shots. Haley is going to need to find ways to put variations and wrinkles in the offense. There are many good things to take away from the game offensively, but the overall play calling – that killer instinct the offense needs to win games – is sterile and lacks the ability to analyze and exploit. If Haley keeps this up, expect fireworks between him and Big Ben and the offense to never really score more than 20 points a game.
Cornerback Keenan Lewis
We now enter the lesser minions of this group. More like victims of their ring leaders, they are forced to make stubborn decisions that prove costly. Keenan Lewis never pressed and appeared to lack any ability to keep his assignment from getting separation. This could have been by design due to Kingpin LeBeau having no faith in Lewis’ ability to cover. Lewis was stubborn in what he did once the pass was caught – nothing. Lewis was so far off the ball that he had to wait for the receiver to come to him order to make a tackle. It left him vulnerable in the open field, and Lewis does not have the agility or speed to make up that ground on a one on one. Result = cuts and mistackles and big gains. The lack of aggressiveness is unfortunate and is on him.
These are just the beginnings of a small band of men who could potentially kill the Steelers season and playoff hopes. The sad and scary thing is that two out of three senior coaches are part of this crew. I know it seems like I’m throwing Lewis under the bus when a lot of it has to do with his coache’s current inability to adjust. There are other players out there that are on the fringes of joining this group – Lawrence Timmons and Isaac Redman. Hopefully, this potent crew is disbanded soon, and we see a much improved team that knows how to adjust and react properly to opponents.