Steelers Too Stubborn For Own Good: 3 Players That Should Be Starting

By Jeremy Hritz

There is little doubt that come Sunday night, Ike Taylor will be lining up at his right cornerback position, Casey Hampton will be lining up at his nose tackle position, and Brett Keisel will be lining up at his right defensive end position.

What is the common link between these three players outside of the fact that all of them are 32 plus years old? They are all underperforming yet are not in jeopardy of losing their starting positions. This is nothing new in Pittsburgh, as players who do not play up to the standard continue to hold down their role. Back in 2009 Mike Tomlin promised to “unleash hell” in the month of December after dropping multiple games, a plan that he implied would include line-up changes. However, the only change that resulted that season was to the starting nickelback. As history shows, the Steelers under Tomlin do not make radical line-up changes, despite the performance on the football field.

Is this an effective practice by the Steelers, or is it one that is in resulting subpar play?

There is no question that the Steelers have been successful under Tomlin, with none of his teams dipping below nine wins. His leadership and his commitment to his players have resulted in two Super Bowl appearances and one Super Bowl victory.

However, despite the poor play this season on defense, there have been no changes to the starting lineup. While the outcome of 2009 was cemented with a 9-7 record and no invitation to the playoffs, the 2012 season can still be salvaged. Unfortunately, it is hard not to believe that if the starting lineup remains the way it is, the result will continue to be the same: blown fourth quarter leads and losses.

What raises several questions is that there appears to be talent at the positions that the Steelers are currently struggling with.

This summer, nose tackle Steve McLendon was extolled by his coaches and teammates for his improvements, and there was a tangible buzz surrounding what he would do on the field during the season. Yet despite the attention that he drew, he has not been on the field for any significant amount of time. With the way Hampton has been playing, one cannot help but scratch their head about why McLendon continues to be nothing more than an eight to ten snap player.

Cameron Heyward did not generate as much buzz at training camp as McLendon did, but he still performed admirably. Keisel, like Hampton, has not played especially well and his best days more than likely are behind him. However, like McLendon, Heyward is getting few snaps to establish himself, yet it is hard to believe that he would perform any worse than Keisel has so far this year.

Lastly, Cortez Allen was considered as the leading candidate to start opposite Taylor this season, yet Keenan Lewis ended up starting at left cornerback. This season, Lewis has played decently, while Taylor has been irritatingly average. Appearing a step slower and limited to stopping receivers through pass interference, Taylor has yet to lose his starting role, even though a young Allen seems more than capable of excelling in a starting role.

With youth, speed, and hunger on their side, it is hard to believe that McLendon, Heyward, and Allen would perform any worse than Hampton, Keisel, and Taylor, and in fact, they could possibly provide the boost that the defense needs to elevate its play. Unfortunately, based on the history of the team under Tomlin, changes to the lineup are not forthcoming, short of injury to one of the current starters.

Is the current Steelers leadership stubborn to a fault concerning giving opportunities to up and coming players? And is such an attitude responsible for the poor defensive play we are witnessing this year?

Albert Einstein once defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” While nobody is asserting that Tomlin and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau are crazy, their hesitancy to give their youngsters a shot seems irrational.

What other evidence do we need than the all of the blown fourth quarter leads?

  • Jeff S

    I totally agree. I would love to see them move Ike “PI” Taylor to nickel so he can cover the slot receiver and allow Allen to move out wide. Ike seems to have lost a step and shouldn’t be trusted on the outside anymore. Plus he can’t do any worse than Mr. PI

  • G mart

    Why doesn’t somebody in the Pittsburgh sports media question Tomlin on this during his weekly press conference? Seems like everyone agrees and sees the same thing except him and LeBeau…

  • alex

    a step slow in professional sports these days is a step in the grave…

  • SteelSpine

    Amen. Expect coach’s answer would only be coach-speak anyway, which is generic nothing. It’s like most coaches went to a training class on how to answer media’s questions without saying anything. Except Tomlin adds: “at this juncture”. So you wont get any answer, but at-least asking it to Tomlin would tell Tomlin that people are thinking about it.

  • Kalan Bell

    While i definitely agree with the first two starts, i don’t believe Taylor should get benched. He hasn’t lost a step in my opinion as he still has the ability to run with anyone. With him i just think it comes down to what Woodson said and getting back to the fundamentals. You can tell by watching him that he is simply playing sloppy. Remember Tomlin’s first year one of his top priorities was to get Taylor playing back to an elite level after Cowher had benched him because he struggled the previous year. He’s in a slump and i believe he’ll get out of it.

  • SteelSpine

    This season is a second-guesser’s delight. It means I agree & it means we could make a list longer than that plus while-at-it oh-boy I question lack of preparation this past offseason: For example, what was the brass thinking this past offseason not getting any veteren backup safety. Already knew this past offseason there was no reason to think Polo would make it thru any full season, we knew we’d play in Denver again where knew Clark wouldnt play, & we knew from last season we have no backup safety. Our coaches had been around Mundy several years thus knew.

    I’m not surprised our coaches dont see the better-talent/switches you suggested, because our coaches have been asleep at the wheel. They didnt coach-out some of the frequent penalties our players made so I’m not surprised they’re asleep waiting too late to edit the depth-chart. Will sell-out Heinz field all season regardless, & Tomlin has his SB appearances + job security + new contract, maybe that’s why Tomlin seemed content to let this team DRIVE ITSELF to 6-10 this year.

    As to Cortez: I think the reason they havent started him yet over Ike, is this regular season showed to be big step up in talent he faced compared to preseason backup receivers & generic offenses he played ok against in preseason. I had hoped he could advance quickly to take over as a starter & I still do, & he had a good preseason. But during reg season, seemed receivers caught anything they wanted at him, showing to be the huge step from at Citadel (I know he’s been outta college awhile now but that step up is appearing big). Everyone sees Ike stinks this year tho, so maybe the coaches will soon leap Cortez over Swag.

  • I don’t know that you take a defense that relies on consistent execution and start changing starters for young guys because you think they might play better. These guys are getting enough snaps to make a difference and aren’t playing well enough to get the coaches to give them more snaps. Changing one player means having an effect on several and you don’t do that to see if someone can do the job. They need to prove in practice and limited game snaps that they are better than the other guys before you disrupt the entire unit to make a major change.

    The bottom line with the defense is Troy and Harrison. If you take out the two highest paid players in any unit it’s gonna suck. You can’t pretend these guys are replaceable with your backups.

  • SteelSpine

    Good idea.

  • Brian Patterson

    This is the typical fan argument. Play other guys because they can’t be
    worse. The one thing that fans like the character who wrote this article
    fail to acknowledge is the real possibility that the team doesn’t have
    the talent to play any better. There is no evidience that guys like
    Allen or Heyward would make a difference. I see Allen on the field and
    he gets beat like the other corners. Heyward adds nothing as a pass
    rusher so he would simply be another two gap DL to put in the mix on
    running downs.

    Maybe give a little more consideration to the idea
    that most of the players on the Steeler defense are not that good
    anymore. How many players on the current Steeler defense would start for
    Houston or Seattle? The answer is probably no one now. Compare that to
    3-4 seasons ago when you had guys like Hampton, Farrior, Woodley,
    Harrison and Troy all playing at the highest level.

    The players are not that good anymore…except it.

  • John Mazza

    i dont know if Taylor has lost a step because if someone gets close to passing him he just holds or gets a PI. Id like to see a lot more Allen, im a huge fan. especially after the play he had last week. Ike has kept too many drives alive this season by penalties.. and if a penalty isnt called it could have been. I love Keisel but i would like to see Heyward subbed in more on both sides. Hampton i think is getting worked.. Mclendon would be nice to see him more as well. Great Article. cant agree more

  • GunsDontKillWoodleyKills

    Maybe because they are scared? Can’t think of any other reason…

  • GunsDontKillWoodleyKills

    Great article. You are on point.

  • Jakob

    Before I say anything I have to point out that Ike and the beard played very well tonight, and that you missed the point of this article. I dont know what you have been watching because Heyward and McLendon have played better than the guys they spell when they have taken the field. The point of this article is that Kiesel, Hampton, and Taylor are known commodities and that putting in the younger guys can provide the spark the defense needs to be dominant again. We saw that with Brown (and even Sanders to an extent) last year when Tomlin decided to move him ahead of Hines. The point of the article is: if the veterans arent getting the job done, put in the younger guys and see what they can do.

    How many players on the current Steeler defense would start for Seattle or Houston? How many players on the Texans D were around before Phillips took over? The average age of Seattle and Houston’s defensive players is 25. That means they rotated or started the younger guys, took their lumps, and are now seeing the young guys make big plays. Maybe you should take a look at the young guys on your team like the “character” who runs this website does on a daily basis before you open your mouth again.

    By the way its ACCEPT not EXCEPT.

  • I found this article because I have been scratching my head trying to
    figure out why Steve Mcclendon has not been in. Casey hampton has done
    nothing this season absolutely nothing so he couldn’t be much worse.
    Kiesel hasn’t done much either and Ike has been ok yes his p.i. do get
    annoying but keenan lewis hasn’t been the greatest either. Out of the
    three ike should be the only one to keep his starting job and Casey
    hampton should be the first to lose his job. I have been hoping for
    change at the nt for like 2-3 years. I always thought chris hoke was
    better then him in the later years and casey probably would have gotten
    the boot if hokey hadn’t retired.

  • Steve Duncan

    Personally before the game I would have said McLendon over Hampton, Heyward over Hood, and leave Taylor on a short leash. Allen hasn’t shown enough to be even up to Ike’s declining skills yet.

  • Steve Duncan

    Wish I could upvote this twice.

  • RandomDude

    Eh, I blame Ike’s problems early this season to Mundy. They put Will Allen in and he knows his coverage assignments far better. is he weaker vs the run? Sure. But with the passing fancy in the league these days, I would keep Allen in there, and rotate in Mundy if it’s heavy running. Ike knows his assignments. You can tell sometimes he gets beat, he’s covering the outside, and the inside help gets sucked in by a play fake or stares into the backfield. or on a couple instances, he covered inside, and the safety lost contain on the outside. Good secondary coverage is a team game more than we think. And lebeau makes it hard for the younger players as he likes to disguise the coverages as much as he can. Keep Mundy out of it, and I think we’ll be fine.

  • Mike

    My granny knows Mclendon is an upgrade over Hampton, gotta scratch your head on that one, and this isn’t new, should have started Mclendon all of last year as well