In the aftermath of the “Denver Debacle,” I wrote an article on the state of the Steelers’ Defense. In it, I discussed how their sub-par performance that night, coupled with their number of atrocious performances over the last few seasons, illustrated more of a disturbing trend for the unit as opposed to some one-game anomaly. Some readers agreed with my views on the matter, and some, well, let’s just say that some were in the “Defensive Apologists” group and did not take kindly to what I had to say. Well, I hate to be the “I Told You So” guy, but the Steelers’ Defensive showing against Oakland last weekend all but reinforced the exact point I made only two weeks ago: the Defense will make the Steelers a 6 to 7 win team in 2012, and this unit will continue to struggle until the appropriate steps are taken to fix the issues on that side of the ball.
The Oakland Debacle
Quarterback Carson Palmer had himself quite the efficient afternoon, and went 24 for 34 for 209 Yards with 3 Touchdowns through the air! That’s correct folks, 3 pass Touchdowns for Carson Palmer! And because the pressure was absolutely non-existent/hardly designed to help, Palmer was dropped only once during the entire game on a coverage Sack by LaMarr Woodley. Carson had all day to complete passes, and looked completely at ease every time he settled himself in the pocket. Heck, the only mistake the guy really made was when his Wide Receiver fell down on a route, and caused Ryan Clark to Intercept a cake-easy pass on the opening drive.
Not to be outdone, Darren McFadden had himself a nice day (18 Carries for 113 Yards 1 TD) too, and his performance was highlighted by his 64 Yard completely untouched Touchdown scamper. While 113 Yards is not an enormous number, had McFadden been given 25 Carries, it is likely he would have gone over 175 Yards because he averaged over 6.0 YPC every time he was handed the ball during the game and gashed the Steelers all afternoon long.
Worst of all though, Palmer found significant amounts of success when he targeted the likes of Denarius Moore, Rod Streater, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Derek Hagan, Marcel Reece, and Brandon Myers! Instead of making an attempt to cover/scheme to neutralize these guys, all I saw were Defensive Backs flailing, committing penalties, and being completely outmatched for much of the game against these “Pro Bowl” pass catchers. The only thing that made watching that group’s success worse was the fact that the Raiders’ pass-catchers only played better and left the Steelers’ Defensive Backs in the dust when the game was on the line.
And as we all witnessed readers, the ultimate bed-wetting moments were the ones saved for the 4th Quarter. Over the final 15 minutes, the “blue-print” to beating Pittsburgh’s Defense was executed by Oakland, and the moment Pittsburgh had to give the ball back to the Raiders via Punt, I knew the game finished. Yet how much did Palmer and the Raiders stick it to the Steelers in the 4th Quarter? Well, as we all remember after the Raiders were down by 10 points when the final frame started, Oakland managed to score points on every single possession. Palmer and his Offense executed the “blue-print for success” as they marched up and down the field with relative ease, converted 3rd Down after 3rd Down with no pressure, and breezed to easy drives of 11 plays for 80 Yards, 9 Plays for 50 Yards, and 9 Plays for 49 Yards! And just like in the Denver game, Oakland was not even forced to PUNT ONCE in the 4th Quarter, let alone in the entire 2nd Half!
There is no way an Offense like Oakland’s should be allowed to score 34 points in close to 24:00 minutes of total possession against the supposedly “dominant” and “confusing” Steeler Defense. I mean, had the Steelers’ rapidly calcifying and completely over-matched unit been forced to stay on the field for 35+ minutes, then yes, I could understand if they had struggled mightily. But between the Offense’s extended drives (over 36:00 TOP), and the time it took for the medical staff to assess both of Oakland’s Wide Receiver injuries, Pittsburgh’s Defense had more than enough time to regroup, catch their breath, make adjustments, and most importantly, make one, single, stop when the chips were down.
And do not even get me started on the strategy where the Steelers decide that 3-4 pass rushers are adequate when protecting a slim lead at the end of a game (let alone during the first three Quarters). This strategy has proven time and again to be an unwarranted risk, as even mediocre Quarterbacks have sliced and diced them up and down the field as Pittsburgh’s struggling Corners have been at their mercy. What should have been a coming out party for the pass rush was an utter disappointment. And that was even when the Raiders’ less than experienced/talented Offensive Line was without Khalif Barnes, their starting Right Tackle. But true to form, the pass-rush was yet again a figment of our imaginations as strategic errors and poor execution by Woodley, Chris Carter, and Jason Worilds allowed Palmer to look like Jim Plunkett for a significant amount of the afternoon.
Instead of ramping up the pressure, designing schemes to increase pocket collapse, or at least attempts to get in the faces of the pass-catchers late in the game, the Defense folded like cheap origami once again. Palmer was allowed sit in the backfield untouched as he surgically picked them apart like all effective Quarterbacks have done in the past and will continue to do in the present: he utilized the short, quick, and efficient passing game. I mean, if the Steelers and Dick LeBeau want instructions on what to do in those types of situations, they should just take a gander at what Baltimore did on Sunday night during New England’s final Offensive possession.
Even though they had struggled at times that evening, the Ravens did not sit back and wait for Tom Brady and his Offense to efficiently and easily win the game when it mattered most. Instead, they designed blitzes, got in his face, and did so with more than 4 pass rushers. And that was Tom Brady, not Carson Palmer. Sure Carson is a veteran player with an effective skill-set at this point in his career, but the guy is certainly not a future Hall of Famer or the caliber of passer like Tom Brady is! And worst/best of all, Baltimore “sacked up” and played hard and physical despite some of the questionable penalties called against them on New England’s final drive. Unlike the Steelers, the Ravens dug deep and answered the proverbial “bell” against a much tougher opponent than the Raiders.
Thus, with the game on the line, Baltimore’s Defense went to a solid strategy to ruffle Brady’s feathers a bit, and succeeded as they got the ball back for their Offense. Where Baltimore succeeded though, Pittsburgh failed this past weekend, and the Steelers will continue to fail until the necessary steps are taken to make improvements on that side of the ball. LeBeau, his “complex” schemes, and the talent (or lackthereof) on this Defense have been exposed for all of the world to see, and Quarterbacks with only mediocre skill-sets and marginal talent will continue to have that “blue-print to beat the Steelers” for however long it takes until changes are made to stop them.
Do not get me wrong, the two fumbles by Dwyer and Brown hurt this team on Sunday. If you want to cry over the supposedly “bad calls” made by the replacement refs then be my guest. But guess what? The questionable calls went both ways, and it was a sloppy day had by all. So to single out the refs as the reason the Steelers lost is short-sighted and ridiculous. Plus, to not credit Oakland for actually finishing the game is simply poor sportsmanship, and fails to give at least some credit to the winning team.
And hey, if you the readers want to espouse the same “James Harrison and Troy Polamalu absent” rhetoric as to why the team lost, or the Defense has issues in general, then you’re more than welcome to do it. But Polamalu was on the field in Denver for the Week 1 Loss as well as numerous other meltdowns, and he has also been much more injury-prone in recent years. Furthermore, I am just not sure what a player like Harrison still has left in the tank from a pass rushing perspective. But come on, would a 34-year old former Pro Bowler with a bad back and knee issues really make a significant difference on a Defense which only sends up to 4 guys at the Quarterback on a consistent basis? While their impact might help somewhat, they are definitely not the dominant “plug & play” Defensive cure-alls they were five years ago.
At this point, my condolences go out to the Offense for the rest of this season, and likely for the next three to five years. Now, Big Ben, the improved Offensive Line, and Boss Todd will be forced to put up at least 30 points per week to stay competitive with most of the teams left on their schedule and in the coming seasons. I honestly dread what will happen when “Ginger Spice” and his Offensive weapons like A.J. Green come to town. And that’s Cincinnati! How the Steelers will be able to contend with the better and/or more athletic signal-callers like Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Joe Flacco, Michael Vick, etc.. will be even tougher. Worst of all, Baltimore actually has a lethal Offense at their disposal, and who knows how high they will try to run the score up to in both meetings down the road to completely rub salt in the Steelers’ wounds at home and on the road.
Because I am tried of being negative, I will close this post by reiterating what I said two weeks ago: significant changes must be made throughout the course of this season on Defense, and even more must be made when the regular season ends. There is no justifiable way that Pittsburgh’s Offense should have to go out and score 30+ every game just to stay competitive on a weekly basis. And there is no way they should make going for it on 4th and 1 inside their own 30 a habit so they can come to the Defense’s rescue after they have been shellacked throughout the entire game.
Whether the changes come from LeBeau retiring, putting Tomlin on notice, cutting the veteran dead-weight on the Defensive side of the ball which eat up a majority of the team’s payroll, reprimanding the newly over-paid and under-performing players supposedly in their “primes'” on Defense, simply using their entire 2013 Draft on Defensive players like the Packers and Patriots did this past April, or using some combination I mentioned, I do not care. I just hope that our fanbase is ready to witness a 6-10/7-9 season, because these Defensive struggles will continue to happen if changes are not made on that side of the football.
Now it’s time to share your thoughts readers: Are you finally coming around to see the light about this Defense? Or are you firmly entrenched in the “Blind Defensive Love” Camp? If changes need to be made on Defense, what are they? Defensive Line? Linebackers? Defensive Backs? Or would some significant “Roster Tetris” and a complete restructuring of the Defense and the Defensive Strategy over the next few years do the trick? How many Wins will this team earn in 2012? Will it be 6, 7, more, or less?
Stats Courtesy of: Pro Football Reference.com