Steelers Defense In Trouble If A Game-Changer Does Not Emerge On Defense

By Jeremy Hritz

If you had a chance the other day to listen to the Wednesday wrap-up edition of The Terrible Podcast, you had the opportunity to listen to some very insightful analysis and discussion between Dave Bryan and David Todd. Most interesting was their discussion related to the current state of the Steelers defense and the reasons behind its dismal performance. While Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote about the predictability of the Steelers defense, Dave and Dave reminded listeners that it is on the players to perform and fulfill their responsibilities, something that safety Ryan Clark also asserted in an interview earlier this week. As Bryan pointed out, the defensive schemes, as designed by Dick LeBeau, have been successful, as they have resulted in two Super Bowl championships; however, it is on the players on the defensive side of the football to be disruptive and to get pressure on the quarterback to force mistakes, and ultimately turnovers.

While Bryan is absolutely correct in his assessment, another question that must be considered is whether or not the players on the defensive side of the ball have what it takes to get pressure and to make splash plays.

Players like Troy Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley, and Lawrence Timmons at one time made momentum-swinging plays, yet they have been relatively quiet, even dating back to last season. And just how much confidence should there be in players like Chris Carter, Jason Worilds, and Keenan Lewis, as their play has been average at best in the first three games. To compound matters, players that were glorified in the offseason, Steve McLendon and Cameron Heyward, have seen very little of the playing field.

A key concept that I keep bringing up in my articles here on the Depot is “emergence,” and how it is essential for teams to stay competitive. The Steelers have enjoyed several years, dating back to the Bill Cowher era, of players emerging and stepping up to be leaders on defense (think Ike Taylor, Aaron Smith, James Harrison). Unfortunately, there has not been a player since LaMarr Woodley who has elevated his play and emerged as a defensive playmaker for the Steelers, and this is a possible reason for the drop in the play of the defense, specifically in the turnover department over the past two seasons.

It is still too early to hit the panic button as this Steelers team has the pieces, especially on offense, to make a championship run. All along, I have stated that this is a team that will build steam as the season wears on, and I still believe that. However, more than ever, one of the defensive players lurking in depths of anonymity needs to take that giant step into realm of black and gold stardom.

The best case scenario? Allen, Carter, Worilds, or a dark horse like Stevenson Sylvester somehow works himself into the equation and becomes a centerpiece of  a playmaking defense.

The worst case scenario? What we have seen in three games is the reality, and our next play maker is currently on the field on Saturdays. If this is the case, we will truly see if Ben Roethlisberger can carry this team to a title.

This much is true: adversity reveals character.

Well, the adversity has arrived.

Time to see what this defense is really made of.

  • SteelerDave

    Very nice article and well stated.

    Sadly, I do not see any players ready to rise up to the challenge and our next impact defensive player is playing on Saturdays.

    Ben may just have to help us score 40 points a game the way our defense and lack of turnovers has been for too long now.

  • WilliamSekinger

    It’s hard for playmakers to emerge when they are all on the sidelines. Steve Mclendon is a perfect example. After a great camp, they immediately started Hampton. While Hampton may of had a better 3rd game, he was handled in the first game pretty easily. Starting Hampton to begin the season, was a pretty poor decision. As far as Harrison’s replacement, Carter had a decent preseason (not great) but the Steelers were out of options at this position with Worilds also out. Worilds has represented himself well in limited action during the first 3 games, I’d like to see more of him and have Carter spell him him, or bring in another D-Lineman when he goes out.

  • Steve Duncan

    Great article.

  • What’s missing are splash plays, and that’s mostly on the front 7. They have to force mistakes. Players must execute, that goes without saying. But the schemes, stunts, blitzs and disguises must evolve with the offenses. The success of TEs and checkdowns are changing the game, Its on the players but its on Lebeau too.

  • SteelSpine

    Well put. I think we had hashed over the problems but that article puts it all together.

    I recall the saying of Steelers defensive players: “The standard is the standard”. But now too many guys who should be ready, arent capable of the previous standard.

    Our DLine has only had 1 sack & zero pressures this year, my concern is there is noone on the bench in-the-waiting. I assume there’s a reason they dont play McClendon, I wish someone would ask a Steelers coach why. It no room for snaps at NT then do they think McClendon this-year (bulked-up to play NT for Hampton who we didnt know whether would be a Steeler again) is maybe too slow now for DE.

    LeBeau used to be able to smoke-&-mirrors cover up for weaklinks in defense. Remember little Tyrone Carter off the street at safety. But cant cover up for Mundy because our front 7 isnt getting pressure.

  • SteelSpine

    I too sadly think all that. Yep it would be unusual for a splash player to be invisible 1st 3 games then suddenly appear after that.

    Good thing Ben’s playing great, so far (knock on wood). Ben’s been the shining light thusfar. And that’s considering our OLine & Ben had to study a new playbook – which he apparently studied so my hats off to Ben.

  • SteelerSince78

    To expand on Sekinger good point. There are several issues regarding the poor play of the defense and I don’t blame them on the players. The decline of the defense is squarely on the shoulders of Mike Tomlin. Because he is the one who not forced Lebeau to adjust his defensive schemes during games. This has been pointed out by opposing teams in both losses, Denver and the Raiders. Frankly he should have been fired after the refusal to play the obvious prevent defense from the Ravens game once it was clear their only chance was to throw in the endzone from the 30 yard line because of time. The was especially apparent after a near touchdown throw down the left sideline in single coverage. Instead of adjusting, he played press and the next play goes down the right sideline to the same guy in single coverage. Unforgivable.
    If not fired for that then the Denver game , which in my mind is the greatest playoff upset in NFL history is squarely on him and Tomlin. Not only did they not play the obvious defense , his tradition zone coverage , perfect for in inaccurate qb who can’t read a defense, from the get go. They refused to adjust even after the first bomb. After the second, realizing from the Baltimore game Lebeau would not adjust out of either stubborn ego or stupidiy, i turned off the game in a furious rage. I’m still disgusted we lost to Tebow. And Tomlin had the balls after the game to say he would play the dame defense again. This man is NOT a great football coach. The better defensive coordinator the following week employed a basic
    zone defense with half the talent of the Steelers and destroyed Tebow.

    Williams point is excellent. This has been an issue with me for Lebeau forever. I’m sick of the whole concept of learning the defense and playing inferior veterans over superior younger players. He’s always done this. 2006 was the worst. I was furious his best linebacker Harrison sat on the bench behind 4 guys he was better than at any position.(I’ve got emails proving this from 1996) Porter was done that year. He had a knee Injury. I watched him consistently blocked on running plays straight into the stands. Haggans , Farrior and Foote were are all average. Every time Harrison played in substitution it was clear he was better then any of them. It is clear to me that Mclendon is better then Hampton and after 4 – 6 games of experience will start an upward slope. Robinson should be immediately be inserted. He consistently applied pressure every play and that from the left side in preseason. The ROLB is the most important position on the 3-4 because it’s from the QB’s blind side. If Woodley is our best pass rushing LB then he should be moved over to ROLB. He would instantly upgrade the pressure on the qb. Heyward is a no brainer. He should start over either DE. And Golden is better then Mundy or Allen. Insert him . Play your best players. If knowledge of the defense is so damn important than put the defensive coaches on the field. Go back and study Chuck Noll’s drafts and the early seventies and see when those guys started. He didn’t goof around. They started as rookies.
    Lebeau must insert the better players and he must mix up his schemes and he must adjust defenses based on the opposing team. It’s obvious he’s lost his touch from last year. The Rooney’s out of
    respect for his previous service have allowed him a year to redeem
    himself and have a handshake agreement with Butler to take over next
    year. This was clear from Butler turning down the DC job offered in

    If he Lebeau doesnt’ start doing the above soon then Tomlin needs to grow some balls and force him. If he doesnt’ then Colbert needs to force Tomlin. If not the Rooneys need to kick somebody in the ass.(Like they finally did with stupid Arians, who Tomlin was told to replace 3 years ago). We now have better offense now that Arians finally got booted. (despite the fact our best guard , Lee is on the practice squad and Dywer is clearing a better rb then Mendenhal or anybody else. It’s not his fault the line can’t run block.

    so after a long response , I disagree with the above column. It’s the coaches responsible for the piss poor play of the defense. Blaming the players for these losses and the Denver/Baltimore loss is their way avoiding criticism of their stupidity. yeah i’m pissed.

  • Brendon Glad

    From my observation, the Steelers have their best defenses when their 2 outside lbs are great pass crushers. The sack numbers are usually there no matter what, but to me, there are some years where it seems all the sacks come from scheme (like say worilds sack in week 1), and there are some years where only about half of them are “gimmick sacks”. For several years Joey Porter was a gimmick sack artist (I believe the gunshot to the hamstring effected him for 2-3 years)…when Harrison is right, he can get the edge, an ot can hold him (with never acall), and he can still get the sack. Kevin Greene could do that. Lloyd could do that. Woodley can do that. Most cannot. So when u rely on scheme sacks, it becomes a dangerous game. To me, Carter and Worilds don’t have that gift. So we are either at the mercy of JH knee, or Adrian Robinson needs to get a few third down snaps. He’s the only one that seems to have that special gift. I don’t care if he’s only been playing on the left. A pass rusher is a pass rusher. And they should just let the “one-trick-pony” put his hands in the dirt and see what he’s got against the big-boys. Worry about whether he can drip into coverage next year.

  • Brendon Glad

    And if any team throws a pass when Casey Hampton is on the field, than technically they outschemed us by definition. I like and respect Hampton as a leader and cog to the Steelers great success on first and many second Downs over the years. But when the raiders are playing from behind all-game, and he gets 9x more snaps than mcclendon, then it deserves to be criticized.

  • Brendon Glad

    They just don’t have it, man. Its either Adrian Robinson, (pass-rush only, since apparently he is a “one-trick-pony”) or pray for Harrison. I don’t need to see any more of Carter and worilds. They just aren’t good enough to do what the Steelers need. I’m not even saying they can’t play…just not for the Steelers at olb. For us he needs to have a gift for something. Like how Porter could rush but drop like a safety. Or Greene and Harrison didn’t drop as well but could beat almost all ots one-on-one. Robinson may play and we find out that he can’t do it against the best…but I watch preseason games very closely cuz I like finding the “next-diamond in the rough ” before my friends. And Carter and worilds just never flash anything. Carter’s sack was a fluke in ps and worilds’s was in week 1. Can’t beat ANYONE if they get blocked. I hope they prove me wrong but they just wont. They’ve had enough time. They can go take Bruce Davis’s spot somewhere

  • RW

    Start heyward and mclendon. It is ridiculous how little they’ve played in the first few games. We don’t have two sufficient pass rushers available to us, but Lebeau should be able to scheme well enough for us to get pressure. What no one is mentioning is that even with this defense, teams should NOT be scoring 30+ points in any game. That’s just outrageous.

    Plus, let’s not forget how poorly special teams coverage units have played.

  • SteelSpine

    I think you have that position nailed, Brandon. And as you mentioned above, Carter & Worlids dont appear to have the “gift” needed to be an impact player at what must be an impact position. Anyone playing OLB has opportunities to flash, & those 2 still havent flashed anything. Wasting time waiting for Harrison just-because Robinson a “one trick pony”. It is definately time to try Adrian Robinson & Brandon Johnson at OLB, at-least on some of the obvious passing downs.

  • AMEN TO THAT BROTHER.I was born and raise in Pittsburgh and have see it too many times where the writing was on the wall but no one did anything about it.True we need to have some players step up but the coaches are the ones toatly responsible for the outcome.I have been saying it for years Dick needs to Retire.Thanks for the Memories but we need new blood I’m pissed as you and alot of Steeler Nation fans