Does Dick LeBeau Still Have His Fastball?

By David Todd

The question has been asked often this year. The Steelers have given up fourth quarter leads in four of six games, so it comes with the territory. Everyone knows Dick LeBeau is a Hall-of-Famer, a defensive genius, but the NFL is the ultimate What-Have-You-Done-For-Me-Lately league. A HOF bust doesn’t supersede last week’s results.

The personnel changes, the schemes change, the game changes.

Often times Dick LeBeau has been at the forefront of change, most notably his implementation of the zone blitz, which has defined modern defense. Under his tutelage the Steelers have consistently ranked among the best in the game. On rare occasions he’s been behind the curve, trying to figure out the latest offensive wrinkle–multiple receivers flooding a zone, two tights ends splitting the deep seam–but ultimately LeBeau has emerged to reassert his prowess.

This year there have been chinks in the Steelers’ defensive armor. Injuries have played a role. Troy Polamalu has worn a hoodie more often than a helmet. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley were on the field together for an entire game for the first time just last week. Performance has waned as well. Ike Taylor was bad enough the first five weeks there were calls for him to be benched. The defensive line went games without being noticed. Pressure in Pittsburgh was being measured by a barometer as opposed to QB sacks.

But there were also bad schemes. In week 1 the Steelers had no answer to Peyton Manning’s no-huddle offense. He was able to read the defense from the line of scrimmage and audible at will, most-notably into a wide receiver screen to DeMaryius Thomas that went for a 71-yard touchdown. There was no disguise, no sugaring of the coverages. In Oakland Carson Palmer knew exactly what he was seeing having started against a LeBeau defense 12 times. In the first half the defense tipped a blitz and Palmer audibled to a run that went 64 yards for a touchdown. In the second half he led the Raiders on five drives: TD, TD, TD, FG, Game-Winning FG. In Nashville the Steelers often looked confused, and on the game’s biggest play, an obvious passing situation, James Harrison was left to cover a tight end on a crossing route. 25 yards later the Titans were set up for the game-winning field goal.

Player performance and coaching schemes are the hand and the glove. The coach’s job is to put players in roles and schemes were they can succeed. The players’ job is to execute. While the Steelers defense again ranks among the league’s best, the numbers have largely been misleading–until last week.

After getting run over on Cincinnati’s first drive of the game, the Steelers held the Bengals to 105 total yards and 10 points, seven resulting from a turnover deep in their own territory, the rest of the game. Dick LeBeau made adjustments. He used the dime defense for the first time all season. He gave Ike Taylor deep safety help on All-World wideout A.J. Green and he modified the fire-X blitz to get consistent pressure up the middle. Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden had no answer, Andy Dalton looked confused and A.J. Green was held to one catch. Checkmate.

This Sunday provides another test, one that football fans across the country will be watching closely. Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins come to Heinz Field. RG III has been nothing short of sensational, quickly become a dominant force and the league’s most talked-about player. His stats are ridiculous. He is first in the league in completion percentage and third in passer rating. He is 12th in rushing and first in yards/attempt. An article in today’s Washington Post suggests he isn’t even close to reaching his potential. The New York Giants beat the Redskins last week but showered unheard of praise on the rookie.

Mike Shanahan deserves a ton of credit for devising game plans (subscription) that have maximized RGIII’s talents and given him a great opportunity to be successful. It starts with a running game that has amassed at least 100 yards in 13 straight games behind its zone-blocking scheme and Griffin’s exceptional ability to sell play-action.

How does Dick LeBeau counteract this multi-dimensional offense that has put up at least 23 points in all but one game this season? Obviously there isn’t a simple answer, but Griffin is a rookie with only seven games of NFL experience. Dick Lebeau is 14-1 against rookie QBs, holding them to 11.4 points per game, a 52.3% completion percentage and a 60.4 passer rating and this will be the first time RGIII has played against a 3-4 defense in the pros. Scheming and confusing, a hallmark of LeBeau in years past, is paramount.

RGIII’s running statistics probably reveal another key for the Steelers to be successful. So far this year Griffin has run by design 38 times and has scrambled 20 times. On those scrambles he’s made it out of bounds 17 or 20 times. On the designed runs he’s made it out just 8 or 38 times. He has already been knocked out of one game with a concussion and is being much more cautious in his last few starts not to take unnecessary hits. The Steelers need to key on him, possibly with Lawrence Timmons as a spy similar to a role he appeared to play against Michael Vick earlier in the season, and hit him every time he runs. This tactic was used somewhat successfully by both Cincinnati and Atlanta earlier this year.

In addition, only 15 of RGIII’s 189 pass attempts (7.9%) have been for 20+ yards down the field. While the Skins offense has big play ability, it is more likely to come with RAC yardage. In addition, this week they will be without Griffin’s favorite target tight end Fred Davis, out for the season with an achilles tear, and offseason free agent-signing Pierre Garcon. Outside of RGIII this Skins lack explosive playmakers.

All this would suggest the Steelers walk a safety down into the box and look to contain RGIII on the edge, daring him to beat them deep with a single safety over the top and press coverage on the wideouts. This would also limit the safe, between-the-hashmarks throws that have led to Griffin’s 70% completion percentage.

The concern for Pittsburgh is the corners, particularly Taylor, have been burned repeatedly when isolated and the defense also lacks speed at the safety position. The Steelers were burned badly by a much-less accomplished quarterback in Tim Tebow the last time they resorted to that type of scheme, so will they be willing to use it against a much better passer in RGIII? It’s a great challenge for Dick LeBeau and the Steelers defense and should make for a fascinating game this weekend.

Can Dick LeBeau scheme, confuse and contain Robert Griffin III? Does LeBeau still have his fastball? We should have a pretty good answer Sunday around 4:15.

you can follow David on Twitter

Originally posted here on ESPN 970 & reprinted with permission.

  • Kenneth Wilt

    14-1 against rookie QBs….Who was the 1?

  • Troy Smith with Baltimore, last game of 2007–Steelers had clinched playoffs and rested a bunch of their starters (including Ben and Troy).

  • He pulled out the Dime against Cincy and a second year QB and Dalton did not expect that. I am sure he will have something up his sleeve for the rookie on Sunday. The question is, will the players execute it properly/effectively?

  • Kenneth Wilt

    Okay, so let’s say that was a rollover game. From some perspectives it shouldn’t even count.

  • SteelerDave

    I truly wish I could say different but over the past season and a half it seems as if the league has caught up with LeBeau and his schemes. Combined with age at key positions, rule changes and less than stellar drafts of defensive players going back a number of years and we are no longer a defensive powerhouse. Is it time for LeBeau to retire and let Butler take over after this season? Most definitely.

  • The good news is I believe we are the number 2 Defense overall and on the rise. Let’s get thru at least 10 or 12 games before we start forcing retirement on folks. Position coaches on the brink of attaining DC or OC jobs share the responsibilty of on the field breakdowns too. Would you rather have the Ravens D right now??

  • SteelerDave

    I do agree that it is early but regardless of where and which stats are used, we have not played like a top five defense. Our offensive time of possession alone is responsible for much of those stats.

    Fact is that we cannot hold leads and cannot close out games and do not intimidate anyone anymore. To me that is simply not Steeler football.

    What in the world took Leabeau so long to roll out the dime and provide support for an aging Taylor? Did he not watch film from last years playoff loss?

    Troy may or may not ever recover fully from his injuries over the years. Even if he does he is no longer young and dominant. Harrison will never be the most feared OLB again (in part because of age, in part because of rule changes).

    Point is that times have changed and we have failed to change with those times. I do like Spence as a pick this year but an arguement could be made that we may have been better off adding a DB to the roster.

  • Good points but we’ll be fine…We are transitioning and it takes a few games for new guys starting at positions and guys that were injured thru camp ect to work their way back to form….Thankfully, the rest of the AFC is in transition as well…Go Steelers!!

  • SteelSpine

    Agreed on all, including seems like didnt learn from the game in Denver last year, & I thought at the time of drafted Spence that we needed a DB more than an undersized interior linebacker.

  • SteelSpine

    I agree it’s all that combination of factors, & LeBeau may have run it’s course. LeBeau had a great & long contribution, but the league eventually catches up with things, & opponents this year have said they knew what LeBeau would do in situations.
    Butler is an unknown tho (at least to me), I dont know if Butler’s plans would be different than LeBeau’s, so I have no reason to think Butler would be better or worse than LeBeau.

  • SteelerDave

    Although it will most certainly cost us dearly to trade up, I would love for us to drat David Amerson in the 1st round next season. He has the hands and instincts to truly be something special as a CB. He very well could be our next Rod Woodson.

    I think Lewis/Allen/Brown are skilled enough to be a solid #2 corner and nickel and dime men but with Ike aging we need an impact CB. Let us start Taylor and Amerson next year and have Lewis spell Ike when needed and you would be watching one of the top pass defenses in the league.

    If we do not trade up for Amerson then we should absolutely take Tyrann Mathieu and move him to safety or take Eric Reid. The 2013 draft will have immense talent at safety, so if unwilling to go for Amerson then it is the year to get a safety.

  • Buccos9

    Since 2009 the Steelers are 28-9 with Troy Polamalu playing, and 7-9 when Polamalu does not play. Is Dick Lebeau really still a great coach, or has he benefited from having a real difference maker on his defense?

  • kyle

    Mathieu? Are you kidding? Do you have any idea how badly you have to screw up to get kicked out of LSU? While they’re at it, the Steelers should see what Marcus Vick is up to.

  • SteelerDave

    My apologies, I had missed the recent news of Mathieu’s arrest. He has enormous talent potential and has cost himself millions. It is a shame as he has the instincts on the field that is exceedingly rare.

    I will keep my fingers crossed for Amerson or Reid. I give major props to the Steelers for their character checks on players and also for giving some like Adams a second chance.

  • Spence could have been a difference maker in a game like this.

  • It’s easy to question Lebeau if you think it was all him at one point but, as well as his defenses were designed, you can’t expect any defense to work if you don’t have the personnel to run it. When Troy and one of your only two pass rushers are missing you have no rush and no ability to disguise the offense. The defensive intimidation can’t be as big of a factor with the new rules either.

  • Tim Culligan

    It kind of pisses me off how quickly all of the Steelers fans here are willing to turn on Dick. It’s 6 games into the season, we’re 2 in YPG and 12 in PPG. Yet you speak of him as if we’re giving up 27/30 points a game. Remember 2009 when the Steelers went on a 5 game skid. Steelers defense was horrible in the 4th quarter then too. Now we’ve had a few bad games and you act like the sky is falling.

  • Buccos9

    It’s not just the past few games where the Steelers defense has not been up to the task at crunch time. NBC Sports had a recent article by Scott Kacsmar which points out that “Since 2007, Pittsburgh’s defense has allowed 20 game-winning drives in
    the fourth quarter or overtime, which is tied with Green Bay for the
    league’s second most.” A lot of the meltdowns have been against the Bruce Gradkowskis and Tim Tebows of the world. It’s great that Lebeau’s defenses rank high during the season in various statistical categories, but far too often it has failed to stop teams late in games when it counts.