Yesterday I began a two part piece on how I’d go about rebuilding the Steelers, focusing on the offensive side of the ball. It elicited quite a bit of reaction (didn’t realize there was such venom for Jon Gruden!), and while some of you labelled me a dreamer I again ask, what is so wrong about recognizing that a certain way of doing things isn’t working anymore?
I’ve used quite a bit of posting space going on about my complete lack of faith in Mike Tomlin and I will not waver in that. People tell me a bad team can go to a good team in no time and that’s true, for instance look at the Kansas City Chiefs. Last year they were 2-14 and the worst team in the NFL, yet despite their record they boasted a number of Pro Bowl players. In walks a NEW HEAD COACH in Andy Reid and just like that KC is 9-0 and riding high. In Pittsburgh, both Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher failed to make the playoffs in their final years and were replaced (Noll with Cowher, Cowher with Tomlin) and both replacement coaches took the team to the playoffs in their first season while keeping most of the previous year’s roster intact. So, in this year of woe, why not be real and say what law, other than the Rooney law, states that we have to be happy with complacency? Why not lift our voices to the Rooney’s and say it’s time to clean some house, starting with an ineffective GM and an increasingly ineffective head coach?
However, let’s move on for now and look how to rebuild the Steelers on the defensive side of the ball:
First, before I proceed, I’m just going to go ahead and say it: I think Dick LeBeau is the best DC in the history of the game. There have been others (Tom Landry was pretty good with the Giants, George Allen with the Bears), but to me, nobody has done more with the concept of the 3-4 defense over his career than LeBeau and I’m glad he finally got in the Hall of Fame for both his playing career and his coaching.
At 77 though I think the writing is on the way for him to step down and I believe he will. He has earned that right to call it a career on his own terms, and as I said I think he will. Now, there is no “replacing” a coach like LeBeau, so whomever is picked should not be labelled ‘LeBeau’s replacement’. I believe there are two quality candidates sitting on the Steelers sideline right now :Keith Butler and Carnell Lake. My preference is Lake, simply for his longer term of service with the team and the fact I think he’d be a darn good DC. He was always one of my favorite players with the Steelers while he was here and he has a nice combo of experience yet would bring some fresh ideas. Butler would be a solid choice as well, but I go with Lake.
My rather radical idea to rebuild the defense would be for them to abandon the 3-4 and go back to a 4-3 which served them so well in the 1970’s. Nobody has had a more successful run with the 3-4 as have the Steelers, but I think right now that alignment has run its course. And yes, I know that requires quite a bit of shifting personnel wise, but since they’re rebuilding, who cares? First Cam Heyward is having a nice season and has happily proved me wrong, so he will be entrenched at one DE spot. I still think Ziggy Hood has been a major disappointment as a player so he goes. Brett Kesiel is 35 and a free agent after this season, but I would try to sign him to a 1year deal, maybe 2 and keep him for depth and for veteran leadership. At the other DE spot, I put Lamar Woodley in there, his contract is just too heavy to let him go and he played and starred at DE at Michigan, so I’m quite comfortable with him there. I’d bulk Jarvis Jones up to about 260 and let him come in on third downs as a situational rusher, a spot I think he’d be great at. He has clearly struggled this year with coverages and such and with him at end, it’s no longer an issue. I also would love to see them give practice squadder Brian Arnfeldt a shot in the rotation.
At tackle it gets a little trickier. NT Steve McClendon has been good, but he’s no Casey Hampton. I’d keep McClendon at one tackle spot and look to the draft to fill the other. Pitt’s Aaron Donald or Florida State’s Tim Jerningan would be there in the second round and both would be really nice picks to fill the other DT spot. Texas’ DT Chris Whaley would make a great mid round pick, but he’s out for the rest of the year with a significant injury, so his draft status is unclear. If he’s good to go, he’d be a nice sleeper pick. I’d keep Al Woods as a potential spot starter and rotational player.
The depth at LB just isn’t what it used to be, which is why I think the move to the 4-3 will help. Lawrence Timmons has the versatility to play any of the three LB spots and I love Vince Williams, so that’s two spots right there. Stevenson Sylvester has no use in my mind, he’s never really come on so he’s gone. Sadly, I don’t see Sean Spence ever really making it back, which is a shame since I felt he could have given this corps the shot of energy it needs. I’d like to be wrong about Spence, I don’t think I am though. Kion Wilson has been on/off/on/off/on/off this team all season, it’s time to make a decision about him. Larry Foote won’t be back and Jason Worilds is the most frustrating player they have. He’s second on the team with three sacks, yet is never consistent enough to play every down, and he can be a bit reckless at times. I cringe when I think they passed on Sean Lee to take Worilds, but fool that I am, I’d give Worilds one more shot at either a DE or LB spot.
To fill out the corps, I’d look at the draft for either Stanford’s Shayne Skov or Penn State’s Glenn Carson, both can play the run and pass and Skov has a penchant for making big plays in key moments. Heck, if they could grab both, I’d be thrilled. A three man LB corps of Skov, Timmons and Williams would be pretty sweet. Yes, there is still the issue of depth, but in a 4-3 I’m only looking at needing to fill 3 backup spots not four and if Wilson or Worilds can stick then I need only 1 more spot.
If the team is intent on staying with the 3-4, Tennesse’s 6’6 351 pound Daniel McCullers might make for a nice NT to backup McClendon or start. If I’m looking at a 3-4 OLB, Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun is a great and Utah’s Trevor Reilly would be a great pick in the 3rd or 4th round.
Other than the OL very few groups elicit more frustration than the secondary. Keenan Lewis’ departure has been felt all season, and Ike Taylor is on the decline. William Gay is NOT the answer and Cortez Allen has been hurt. Curtis Brown is nothing more than a special teamer at this point, so this group is a mess. I’d look to free agency to help this spot and I’d look at Green Bay’s Sam Shields, who would be a really good no.2 corner. A Taylor-Shields combo would be a significant upgrade over anything the team has fielded this year. Again, depth is an issue here, at some point Allen needs to stay healthy and Brown has to step up his game. Gay should be among the first cut this year, I don’t care what anyone says. Draft wise, Oklahoma’s Aaron Colvin is a good, aggressive corner would can play the run, although he can be reckless and can draw some bad penalties. But if I’m rebuilding this team, what’s wrong with a nasty corner who might strike some fear?
At safety it gets tricky. Other than Ben Roethlisberger, the single most identifiable Steeler is Troy Polamalu. And while he’s stayed healthy all year, his instincts look to be off at times, he seems a step behind too often, although he still flashes those trademark ‘Troy’ plays on occasion. He’s due to make over seven million this year, which is a good chunk of cap space and he’s never been willing to take a pay cut and I don’t expect he will this year either. Do they trade him? Cut him on June 1st? Keep him and his salary? No, they don’t trade him nor do I think they can afford to keep him unless he agrees to a salary cut, so you know what that leaves.
Ryan Clark is one of the most embattled players on the roster, good one week, bad for the next two. He needs to go this offseason, he’s way too inconsistent for such an important position. Shamarko Thomas is one possibility to start, but his size reminds me too much of Bob Sanders, a great player who could never stay healthy. The Steelers HAVE to turn to free agency to help fill this void, with either the Browns’ TJ Ward or Miami’s Chris Clemons as the best options. To help with depth and to eventually start, Baylor’s Ahmad Dixon is a fast safety who loves to play the run and will hit you. He needs to be on the Steelers radar come the draft, as does Louisville’s Hakeem Smith, another solid hitter with good speed. A foursome of Polamalu (?) Ward/Clemons, Thomas and Dixon is again far better than anything the team has fielded this season, but it all hinges on Polamalu and his salary.
So that’s it fans, my plans to rebuild the defense. Say all you want about them stat wise, the sacks and turnovers aren’t there and as Tom Jackson said on NFL countdown two weeks ago “The Steelers defense doesn’t strike fear into people anymore.” He’s not wrong. Let LeBeau retire with class, hire Lake as DC, move to the 4-3 and fill spots with a combo draft picks and solid free agent signings (Shields,Ward, Clemons). Finally, figure out what you have in Worilds, Cortez Allen, Kion Wilson and Curtis Brown once and for all and finally let Ziggy and Gay go!