Nov 25, 2012; Cleveland, OH, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau yells on the sidelines in the second quarter against the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Is Dick LeBeau a hindrance to Steelers Defense?

Only a handful of days until training camp starts and for most of us, the regular season opener against Tennessee can’t come soon enough. Many debates have sprung up regarding what type of season the Pittsburgh Steelers will have. Aside from from the storm of bad PR from Maurkice Pouncey’s bad decision to wear a “free Hernandez” hat, it has been a mainly quiet off season for the black and gold.

Many of us have opened up debates on what the Steelers will look like in 2013, doing a position by position analysis or a game by game overview. And while some predict a down year for our beloved team, many of the fans feel quite differently, and have had no problems speaking their minds. Lots of our focus has been on what the defense will be like this season since defense has been a Steelers strength for most of their history. We’ve evaluated stats from last year ad nausea, talked about various players, etc. Looking at it all I’ve come to a conclusion that may be hard to swallow: Dick Lebeau has become a hindrance to the Steelers.

First off, I respect Lebeau as much as any coordinator in the league. He is a well deserved Hall of Famer both for his playing with the Lions but perhaps more as a coordinator and his development of blitz packages and other defensive schemes. At times his blitzes confused offenses, throwing them into disarray and other teams stole his ideas. However, of all the major sports, pro football continually evolves and now the offense has moved ahead of defenses. New players, such as RG III or Colin Kaepernick have taken offenses to new places and head coaches like the Eagles Chip Kelly have brought their high tempo offenses from college. Defenses are now playing catch-up and for the first time I feel the Steelers under Lebeau have fallen behind. For many years it was the other way, but I now believe his schemes that brought success in the form of two Superbowls may be now hurting the team.

Now, I know many of you will continue to point out how the Steelers were again at or near the top statistically in defense and I will not nor have not argued that point. What is hurting the team as I have said is a dramatic decline in turnovers and defensive touchdowns. Even the team’s sack total has dropped. Now some of that could be attributed to injuries or ineffective play (hello Lamar Woodley), but I feel it’s the fact that Lebeau’s schemes prevent rookies who may be able to make an instant impact from doing so. Under Lebeau, Steeler defenders seem to serve an apprenticeship, much as they did under Chuck Noll, starting out on special teams and playing in spots until it is felt they are ready to become starters. I have no doubt that 2013 first rounder Jarvis Jones can make an impact in the pass rush. Problem is, the player he is battling, Jason Worilds has several years experience with Lebeau’s defense and due to that may just be plugged in, the apprenticeship system continuing. As I have written, I do believe former first rounders Ziggy Hood and Cam Heyward have been near busts, due to a combination of having to learn a complex defense and then simply being ineffective playing in it. Hood is in his contract year which may mean the light will go on, he’ll play great and then walk. I doubt that will happen, but that’s just me.

Yes this Steelers defense is in serious transition, losing stalwarts Casey Hampton and James Harrison as well as up and coming CB Keenan Lewis. Promising 4th year player Steve McClendon is expected to take Hampton’s spot but there is no depth behind him. Worilds and Jones are battling for Harrison’s old spot and third year player Cortez Allen is expected to take over Lewis’ old spot. I believe Allen is a better player than Lewis in the long run so I’m not too upset by his departure. Worilds has flashed moments but he’s battled injuries which has held him back, not to mention the presence of Harrison and Woodley ahead of him. With so much youth at key spots, it might be beneficial to simplify things a little in the beginning and figure out their strengths and build to that, rather than the players conforming their talents to the scheme. Remember, the New York Giants ‘tailored’ their defense to exploit the strengths of OLB Lawrence Taylor and he revolutionized the position. Lebeau has in the past altered his defenses to highlight DB Troy Polamalu’s rare gifts to their benefit. Now perhaps the team doesn’t have a player that warrants the same treatment, but unless they give these guys a chance how will they know?

Offenses are spreading defenses out now like never before and OLBs need to be equally adept at dropping into coverage as well as rushing the quarterback. I think the Steelers need to alter their look a little, go into more 4 man fronts, and give their ends a chance to rush the passer and take some of the heat off of Woodley and co. in the pass rushing department. They need to be more aggressive in trying to strip the ball more and batting down passes at the line of scrimmage. Too often last season it seemed like the Steelers defense was letting the oppostion dictate the game and then reacted to it. With a new patch of high octane players and offenses coming in, they can no longer afford to do that. I really feel if the Steelers defense is to evolve with the 21st century offenses they face, they should look to college defensive coordinators who have experience facing these up tempo attacks. I don’t think Lebeau is the right man for the job anymore. Yes, he has been one of the most influential coaches when it comes to blitz packages and run defense. However, I believe his schemes prevent rookies from making an immediate impact and no longer are adept at generating turnovers. I’m sure many of you have the opposite view. I’d like to hear them.
Tell me what you think out there in Steeler nation!!

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