Time To Tackle The Most Glaring Issue On Defense

By Matthew Marczi

The Pittsburgh Steelers defense suffered quite an unusual lapse in their loss to the Minnesota Vikings, which was predicated upon a sudden inability to consistently bring down the ball carrier.

It really is no secret, since the main culprits during the game were all featured on the highlight reels on the 24-hour sports networks. Adrian Peterson’s 60-yard touchdown run, on which Ike Taylor came up to make the tackle and missed; Greg Jennings’ 70-yard catch and run, featuring a pair of missed tackles by Cortez Allen, both at the beginning and the end of the play, and another missed tackle by William Gay; even the long reception by Jerome Simpson.

All of these plays displayed a highly uncharacteristic trend of poor technique by the normally sure-tackling Dick LeBeau defense. In fact, of the team’s 39 missed tackles on the season, a whopping 15 of those missed tackles came in London, and unfortunately they still count back in the states.

The sad fact of the matter is that there are only two teams in the league that, through the first quarter of the 2013 season, have missed more tackles on defense than have the Steelers. Those teams happen to be the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Washington Redskins, with 42 and 52 missed tackles, respectively.

Only a handful of teams, in fact, have missed 30 or more tackles in total this year. Being in such an undistinguished category on defense is certainly not familiar, nor comfortable, territory for this team.

And the fact of the matter is that that has to change. LeBeau’s defensive philosophy is predicated upon preventing the big play, forcing teams to play a short-area game that increases the volume of plays, and thereby decreases the margin for error.

The Steelers’ defense is structured in such a way that it often places one specific player in the position to make the play. He either makes the play or he does not, which can be the difference between a three-yard gain or an explosive play, with Peterson’s first touchdown being a perfect example of that.

This typically has not been a problem. In 2012, the Steelers missed only 82 tackles all season. In 2011, they missed just 69. During their last Super Bowl run in 2008, they only missed 67 tackles.

The 2013 edition of the Steelers are on pace for nearly 160 missed tackles. Something has got to give, and fast, because this last loss was on the defense. Missing tackles is a fatal blow for a defense that is not getting sacks and turnovers.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • Jason

    I think the most glaring issue on defense is the fact that the supposed master of the zone blitz hasn’t drawn up 1 elaborate blitz to get to the QB all season. All Woodley’s sacks were simply Woodley getting to the Qb and I think Keisel beat his guy for the other sack. Yep 4 sacks all year from a D led by a guy we constantly hear draws up such elaborate schemes. Simply put, Haley takes constant abuse much of which is undeserved but very few will place the blame where it lies and that’s with this soft defense that sits back and let’s below avg Qb’s pick them apart while generating no pressure or turnovers. I respect Lebeau and everything he’s done is this league but I fear the game has evolved and he simply can’t at this point. Not a popular opinion I’m sure.

  • Fritz Baughman

    I think missed tackles is a sign of a soft, gutless defense.

  • TJimmy

    An inexplicable anomaly for a team that did so much live tackling in training camp. Perhaps the different routine caused LeBeau to think he didn’t need to do his normal tackling drills?

  • Bell Cow

    I agree about zone blitz not being effective and I believe it starts up front. The defensive linemen (Hood, McClendon, Kiesel, and Heyward) are not sucking up blocks and allowing the linebackers to roam free as they did in the past. If they’re going to to continue running the 3-4, they need a true Casey Hampton type of nose tackle to create space up front. Put McClendon at the defensive end spot and find another predecessor to Kiesel besides Hood & Heyward. Obviously they likely can’t make those changes this year, but it’s something they need to address this off season.

  • Jason

    That’s exactly what I mean about the double standard with Lebeau and Haley. We hand Haley a joke of an offensive line and no decent rb (until Bell returned) and expect him to work wonders but when the D doesn’t perform we blame the players and never question Lebeau.

  • Bell Cow

    Missed tackles aren’t Lebeu’s issue. I agree with you in a sense about the double standard, but Lebeau may someday be considered the best defensive coordinator of all time and it’s hard to question his pedigree.

    However, I’ve posted on this forum before about changing the defensive scheme and got ridiculed. I believe they need a fresh new look on defense starting next season and should contemplate allowing Tomlin to implement his Tampa 2 defense. If this is truly Mike Tomlin’s team moving forward, than why not allow him to install his defensive scheme? It would make sense, especially if Lebeau decides to retire and a lot of veterans are gone.

  • dennisdoubleday

    2009: Defense playing terribly, “the game has passed LeBeau by”
    2010: Steelers in Super Bowl, LeBeau a genius again.

    The Steelers had significant defensive problems in the first 5 games last year, and LeBeau adjusted and they played at a high level (except for the turnover problem) after that. So I still have faith in his abilities. He didn’t suddenly get dumb.

  • dgh57

    First it was the injuries, then it was the turnovers, and now the missed tackles. What’s scary about it all is we’ve only played 4 games so what else can go wrong! I can only hope the last game was simply a anomaly and hope for the best going forward.

  • charles

    It is with me. Respects as you say but it is time for the Steelers to give LeBeau the Arians treatment. Carnell is waiting…

  • treeher

    Defense no longer has the ability to excel in a 3-4 alignment. We don’t have the massive nose tackle needed to occupy blockers, and Ziggy is constantly overmatched despite his strength, due to short arms and bad technique. Loss of Foote has been underrated by the pundits. We have Keisel, Haywood, Woods, Hood, Heyward, McClendon, and Fangupo – that’s enough to put four down linemen. Backers are Jones, Timmons, Woodley.

  • charles

    It seems, also that LeBeau seems to teach his defenders to engage the blocker instead of beat them. This makes our linemen (non) tackling dummies and renders blitzers totally useless. Any other team would have separated themselves from a DC with these kind of numbers in the MOST important stats on D: sacks, TOs, now missed tackles.. you have to be kidding?!?!

  • Bill Molinaro

    I believe at least some of this is due to
    the current rules and their enforcement. Defensive backs are operating from an
    untenable position. They can’t tackle high because they fear the dreaded helmet to helmet hit and associated flag and/or fine, so they tackle low. If they
    tackle low, they are abused for possibly causing a knee injury. So they dive at
    the feet which means they lose site of the target and are just as likely to
    miss as they are to be successful. Correct tackle form is head up, shoulder
    into the torso. But the last time I checked, the head is on top of the shoulder
    so at the moment of impact the head must be lowered somewhat and that can lead to…… The most hilarious thing I see is the ‘heads up’ commercials from the
    NFL. In these depictions of ‘proper tackling’ the tackler is using his sternum
    as the impact point. If you attempt to tackle a good back using that technique,
    be prepared to hit the ground hard with a bruised chest. Imagine Jim Brown,
    Earl Campbell, John Riggins, The Bus, et al approaching; can you feel the
    pain as they punch you in the chest and run over you. You can’t legislate
    injury out of the game of football, even flag football. You can legislate rules
    to improve safety but they must be humanely possible to adhere to and they must pass the common sense test. Under Goodell they do not and the game is
    quickly becoming a caricature of football; a cartoon if you will.

  • charles

    Excellent. And Goodell made sure thar the Steelers have led the league in working out the interpretation of these stupid rules.

  • Fritz Baughman

    In 2009, both Aaron Smith and Polamalu missed eleven games due to injury.

  • Alan Felicia

    Plain and simple, in the past 5 drafts from 2008 thru 2012, this organization have not picked or groomed any “impact” or even a solid defensive player! The teams that won or played in the Super Bowl (’04, ’08, ’10) had several Pro Bowls and All-Pro Key players including Aaron Smith (4th round pick, 1999), Joey Porter (3rd rd, 1999), James Farrior (FA, 2002), James Harrison (undrafted FA, ’02/’04), Casey Hampton (1st rd, 2001) to name a few.
    Place blame on Front Office (Colbert and staff) for not drafting or developing any key defensive players!

  • dennisdoubleday

    That doesn’t change the fact that people were wrong when they said “the game has passed him by.” It reinforces the point that he does well when the talent is there.

  • cencalsteeler

    A nice strategy opposing teams are doing against the Steelers is putting a fullback on Timmons. Once Timmons is eliminated, odds are looking pretty good for other offenses. The next level of tacklers are simply not wrapping up, they’re simply going for the “Sportscenter highlight tackle”. Unfortunately, they’ve ended up on the wrong end of the highlight reel.

  • Mike Carroll

    Wow! It’s stunning how poor the Steeler defense is through 4 games:

    3rd worst in NFL in missed tackles.
    Worst in NFL with zero.
    Worst in NFL with sacks.

    Those stats say two things about the Steeler defense: they cannot generate any big plays and they give up way too many big plays. I look at these numbers and realize the team is in much worse condition than I’d like to believe. Unfortunately, this defense has been in clear decline since 2010 in both turnovers and sacks. Now you throw in bad tackling and it becomes a poor defense, one of the worst in the league despite whatever the yardage stats say. I expect they’ll clean up the tackling somewhat as the year goes along, but I still don’t see any new playmakers emerging. Very troubling. At this point, I do begin to question if LeBeau’s scheme is outdated.

  • Mike.H

    I wonder if Butler would be greatly offended if Lake was also being considered to take over for Lebeau when time comes to choose successor?

  • HiVul

    That’s because our defense has been a top defense in important statistical categories for years, especially in terms of YPG allowed, against both the rush and pass. Haley doesn’t have the track record of success in Pittsburgh that Lebeau has. On the administrative side I see Colbert as most to blame for our current problems, I wouldn’t single out Lebeau or Haley. I think this is more of a talent issue than a scheme issue.

  • sean mcmartin

    the 3-4 works only when you can apply pressure up front. The reason it does not work is the lack of talent up front. The same scheme worked with Arron Smith, Hampton , Kiesel,

  • James Kling

    The front 7 are just not as good against the run as the Steelers of years past. Foote, for being old and slow, was at least a reliable run stuffer. Mac gets some push upfield in the pass rush but isn’t the clogger that Snack was. Hood and Heyward aren’t the second coming of Aaron Smith, and that’s a p***poor return on investment for two R1 picks.
    But I think the real problem is that the secondary isn’t up to the job in the fast-paced passing game that the NFL now comprises. It doesn’t matter if our OLBs or DL are beating their blockers if the QB can get a quick slant off before they arrive. Our best guys in the secondary are Ike, Polamalu and Clark. Those guys are 33, 32, and 33 respectively. Ike is giving too much cushion, Pola has shown flashes of his old self but has gotten caught guessing, and Clark looks like he’s dropped off quite a bit. Cortez played well last year but he’s been rooooof coming back from injury, and clearly isn’t up to speed. Gay’s ceiling is what it is. Shamarko is still finding his feet.
    Now let’s look at the investment in our secondary. Polamalu was a R1 pick. Ike was a R4 pick. Clark was a FA who went undrafted coming out of LSU. Cortez was a R4 pick. Gay was a R5 pick. Shark was a R4 pick. Now, Clark is (was) a better player than his UDFA draft status, but your entire secondary is a bunch of third day draft selections. I think Cortez will rebound, and Shamarko will turn out to be good, but the investment by Colbert and Tomlin in top tier talent is AWOL. If the receivers are open, the QB can get the ball off, and it doesn’t much matter what the F7 does.
    Not saying Jarvis is a bust, but we had Worilds and Woodley already. We could have taken a guy like Xav Rhodes, who’s played pretty well and fits the physical style of CB play we favor. We could have taken Deandre Hopkins, who is the anti-Sanders, and could have been the clutch sort of go-to guy we need to pair with Brown. Sure, Jarvis was a “great value,” if you read the draft web sites, but in reality? Not sure.

  • Ike Evans

    You got are crazy if you want lebeau gone….he’s the least of this teams troubles

  • Christopher Wilkes

    I’ve given the defense a pass so far this season, but after last game I have to stop lying to myself. The whole team is bad. We could be a playoff team with these players, but they’re all playing, with the exception of a few, with no heart. I think you have to blame the coaches for that. Turn over some stones, Tomlin

  • RedCarpetDefense

    Exactly….the 3-4 defense has worked very well for us with Lebeau as def coor. to the tune of 3 SB appearances winning 2 of them. We simply have not had the talent to continue the successes of former players.

  • RedCarpetDefense

    In your alignment who are your pass rushing DE’s? None of those guys fit that role we’d have to draft or buy two. They all look like 4-3 DTs. Maybe throw Woodley and Worilds on the ends let’m put their hand in the dirt. If Spence were healthy that could be Jones, Timmons and Spence. Its an interesting thought switching to a 4-3.

  • sean mcmartin

    Finally another voice of reason. Football is a game of emotion and the Statue (MT) does not have it in him. He would be good for a chess coach.

  • treeher

    Point taken, I’m not sure. We’ve seen Keisel show that ability and also Heyward. I think the mix of people would have to be adjusted through trades, free agents, and draft to really get to where we need to be. I’m not counting on Spence anymore, but if some of the other backers develop, maybe Worilds as a rushing DE. Of course, as long as LeBeau is around, we won’t be switching, but I could see it happening after he retires.

  • John

    The glaring problem with the defense — which is not being talked about as much as it should — is the nose tackle play seems abysmal. Teams can now run right up the middle with only mild resistance. We put 8 in the box with Troy a lot last week and STILL could not stop the running game or the short passing game. Face it — none of the new players we were relying on have been able to do what they were supposed to do. NT play is poor. The ROLB position does little. ILB (the rookie) is below the line. Having Gay for Lewis is the only sub substitution that may be close, all else is basic subtraction. Add to all this that Ryan Clark seems to be slowing down and you have a major deficiency.

  • Bell Cow

    They played the 43 in the 70s with great success and switched to the 34 in the early 80s once those great defensive linemen retired. Now Hampton, Smith, and Kiesel will all be gone next year. The talent up front and in the linebacking core does not suit Lebeaus scheme. I don’t know why so many Steelers fans thinks it’s so far fetched to change next year.

  • sean mcmartin

    yeah it is also a truth. They missed on high draft picks.
    Now There are some guys they are Stuck with because of cash.
    So the sad part is this is not a one year rebuild. I also believe that just about any coach is good with talent to execute. Lesser coaches get exposed when they have to motivate and coach up a team of non pro-bowlers.

  • Christopher Wilkes

    I’d actually like to see a breakdown of the NT play so far this year.

  • Mike Carroll

    I’m trying to tell myself that McLendon’s hamstring is actually worse than they’re saying, but he is playing through it. I’m afraid that’s wishful thinking. If the right NT is available next year, I’d be glad to see them take him in the first round if necessary.

  • r4kolb

    Funny after I read this article by Matthew I was thinking to post the same thing but wanted to see if anyone else felt that was the reason. I truly think that plays a big part of it. I’m sure we all can remember some of the plays where Clark laid the wood and letting teams know the Steelers were bringing the hurt. (Just ask Wes Welker!) That was always one of the Steelers trademarks, teams knew the were going to be spending a lot of time in the tub soaking the hurt away the week after a Steeler game . The “D” took pride in it and they all feed off one another. The intensity has been removed in the “new” NFL. Don’t get me wrong watching some of the missed tackles were just bad tackling technique.
    I also get to some point the “why” the NFL is doing it. It’s twofold,
    1)To try to keep players from blowing their brains out when they get older due to the damage their brains take from the blows to the head they take throughout their careers.
    2)To try to cover their butts from lawsuits by saying they did what they could to make the game safer.
    I honestly think the reason it seems to hurt the Steelers more then other defenses is they thrived on it. We just have to get used to the fact old Steeler Black and Blue football is gone. Heck when they start fining our running backs $20,000 for a hit on a defensive player you know, this isn’t your fathers NFL anymore.

  • alex

    man, i hope and pray they tackle like rabid hungry dogs the rest of the season just to get the stench of 0-4 out of there mouths…!

    ps…listen to ryan clarks espn svp&russillo interview this week (who ever they r)…this guy should be the all time interview player for the NFL…straight shooter extrordinaire!

  • PA2AK

    Easy to say because no other team has a HOFer as there DC. It gives him the benefit of the doubt all day…and for good reason. I think it’s time for a changing of the guard, though. Won’t happen until after the season. I thought it was a sure gig for Butler…but with the emergence of Lake, I think they waited another year to see. Still think Butler gets the job next year…or at least that’s who I’m pullin for.

  • PA2AK

    I’ve been thinking the same thing. I’m pullin for Butler big time. He has put in some serious time and has earned it. He should leave Pittsburgh for better opportunity if that ends up the case. Great defensive mind. A fundamentals guy with a great read on talent.

  • Alfredo Reveles

    Sobering statistics..as if we needed more bad news.

  • kakello34

    This team plays such a soft zone I feel like I could drop back and complete 10 yard passes all day. You can’t get an interception if you’re 5 yards away from the receiver when the ball arrives. It is really painful to watch.

    On the flip side of that, it appears our receivers always have 3 defenders draped all over them when the ball arrives.