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?