I hate to be Warren Sapp right now, but let’s be honest with ourselves “Steeler Nation,” Sunday Night’s effort left quite a bit to be desired. I really do not want to point fingers, but unless something changes on the Defensive side of the football, struggles and failings this season are almost assured because of this unit’s inherent weaknesses. For those of you ready to explode at me for making such remarks, at least hear what I have to say:
My Thoughts on Week 1
To be honest, after about a day or so, I gave the Steelers and their Defense the benefit of the doubt after Week 1 last season. “The 2011 Charm City Massacre” was just a comedy of errors, turnovers on Offense, and the Defense never had a chance to stop Baltimore as they played most of the game in their own territory. And with the lockout shortened off-season, the veteran group was already at a disadvantage.
So while the loss was hard to watch, I could understand the team losing to a high-caliber team which was ready to play on a day which simply “wasn’t theirs.” After watching the debacle in Denver however, I am more inclined to say that this Defense is on the down-swing, and is set up for a long season.
Strategically, how and why LeBeau stopped attacking Manning through the A-Gap with blitzers, or even tried to attack more is nothing short of beyond me. Denver even had a backup in at Right Guard, and lo and behold, the Steelers did not attack the new guy like they rightfully should have. Like Tom Brady or any of the other shorter Quarterbacks, edge rushing with slower guys like LaMarr Woodley accomplishes nothing without a push from the interior. Savvy signal-callers just step up, go about their business, slide in the pocket, and take advantage of less-than tested Defensive Backs which struggle to Tackle and are playing 10 Yards off of the Line of scrimmage. Heck, if you want pressure off of the edge, send a Defensive Back every now and again like Jim Haslett used to do with Carnell Lake or Chris Oldham back in the day.
What even the best Quarterbacks cannot control are rushers in their face, especially less than mobile Quarterbacks like a Brady or a Manning. To not even harass or attempt to harass Manning in the 2nd Half from up the middle was a bit of a joke. Not play 9 in the box for 4 Quarters joke like a certain Defensive Coordinator did last season to a Quarterback who could only throw deep balls well, but pretty darn close.
Were Manning’s stats sexy (19/26 253 Yards 2 TD’s) from last night? No not in the least. Manning has had much better days at the office in terms of Passing Yards and Touchdowns over his career. But what Manning did so incredibly well was the way he surgically destroyed the Steelers Defense all night long and made each and every one of his 19 completions an efficient and destructive one. From an unbiased perspective, the only reason Denver was not able to score more points was the simple fact that Pittsburgh’s Offense essentially milked the entire 3rd Quarter and end of the 1st Half with possessions.
Had the Steelers not been able to convert so many 3rd and Longs and eat the middle of Denver’s Defense alive in the passing game when they chose to, this Defense would have been carved even more and the final score would have been ridiculously lopsided. Mind you, the Steelers Defense was not in the same position as Denver’s unit which spent the final 5:00 of the 1st Half and almost entire 3rd Quarter on the field. Pittsburgh had a ridiculous amount of time to rest and game-plan how to stop the Broncos, and simply could not do it when their collective number was called.
It’s not 1995 anymore Mr. LeBeau, in case you have not noticed. Offenses are not as heavily reliant on the run, are more in sync when working from a Shotgun formation, and are thus less apt to take 5 to 7 step drops which exotic zone blitzes can wreak havoc against because they have ample time to develop. Plus, with the advent of the short passing game, Quarterbacks are not only more accurate as a group, but are are more prepared to “take what the Defense gives them” and more apt to recognize certain Defensive schemes.
Schedule Dictates 6 to 7 Wins
If it sounds like I am being a “Negative Nancy” I truly apologize, but after what I saw on Sunday Night, the Steelers are going to have a devil of a time with the rest of the Quarterbacks and Offenses on their schedule. From the talented ones in the NFC East (E. Manning, Romo, Vick, RGIII), Philip Rivers, a guy like Carson Palmer that is familiar with LeBeau’s schemes, or even Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton, what the Broncos did was a perfect blue-print of how to attack this “complex” Defense: accurate short passes and quick timing routes. A blue-print I might add that Tom Brady has been showing off for years and Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers have had success with as well. And a blue-print which these Quarterbacks I discussed above have the capability and talent around them to follow to carve this Defense all season long.
Currently, I see six winnable games on the schedule (Cleveland x2, Cincinnati (home), Tennessee, Kansas City, and San Diego). And the only reason that I picked San Diego as a winnable game is because the contest is in December and in Pittsburgh. Had it been at Jack Murphy Stadium (yes, it’s Jack Murphy Stadium to me, and always will be referred to as such) without the chance for inclement weather, Rivers could and would throw for over 400 Yards with ease as Antonio Gates and Eddie Royal would eat the Secondary alive.
Sure, those of you which disagree with what I am saying can espouse all of the “#1 Defense in 2011 and/or Ryan Clark and James Harrison were out on Sunday” pablum you want. But to be brutally honest, 2011 was very kind to the Steelers Defense from a schedule perspective. In fact, this team had the luxury of facing Quarterbacks like Tarvaris Jackson, Colt McCoy, Seneca Wallace, Andy Dalton (x2), Kellen Clemens, Kevin Kolb, Blaine Gabbert, a past-his-prime Matt Hasselbeck, and Curtis Painter. The only time the Steelers’ Defense played remotely well against an elite Quarterback was when the team finally decided to attack Tom Brady and his short passing game with press coverage in their game last season. And you know, RUSH HIM UP THE MIDDLE. Other than that, this Defense struggled against the likes of Alex Smith and Tim Tebow, and this year faces the type of Quarterbacks which can really do damage to a Defense constructed like Pittsburgh’s.
I am still excited because its football season, and there are few things which I enjoy more than watching my favorite team play. I am stoked for Week 2 and for however long this season lasts. I will watch every single game this season with the utmost anticipation and interest which I have watched Steelers games for the last two decades. Yet due to the fact I can think critically, I hold no postseason illusions for this team unless steps are taken to fix these glaring weaknesses.
Best case scenario, the Offense opens up, gets rolling, and we see a season similar to 2002 or 2009 where shootouts are the norm, and the last possession wins. Worst case scenario, injuries occur, Dick LeBeau chooses to ignore pressuring Quarterbacks up the gut, the pass rush is stagnant, the Secondary cannot make plays, and the Haley Experiment fails.
But after what I saw in the preseason, what I saw on Sunday, and what lies ahead on the regular season schedule, logic tells me that I will be more excited in January as I wait for Padres Pitchers and Catchers to report in Peoria. Not watching postseason football with the Steelers competing in it.
What say you readers?: Am I crazy to assume a losing season? Can the Steelers step up their games down the road? Is the team smack dab in the middle of an arduous rebuilding effort? Let me know
Stats Courtesy of: Pro Football Reference.com