Blog Entry

Why The Steelers Defense Failed in 2009

Posted on: February 26, 2010 12:19 am
Edited on: February 26, 2010 12:23 am

In 2008, the Steelers defense was one of the best single season defenses in the history of the game.  They were ranked first in nearly every defensive category, some by a substantial margin, and tied the 1973 Rams record by holding 14 consecutive opponents to under 300 yards of total offense.  It was only in the closing weeks of the season that the run defense just barely slipped into second. 

So what happened in 2009?
While the injuries to Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith were a big factor in the subpar performance this past season, the cracks in our defensive armor had already been exposed in the Super Bowl - and that was with both of the aforementioned players in the lineup.  The second half meltdown and the complete torching of our secondary was a prelude of things to come, and it gave teams an entire offseason to look at ways to expose our defense.  How ironically appropriate that Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm would be the ones to lay out the blueprint for the rest of the league on how to beat our defense.
In my other thread, I mentioned that Dick Lebeau's defense is not built to coexist with a pass happy offense.  The basic premise behind that concept is that Lebeau's defensive philosophy is designed for pressure: stop the run, force opponents to pass, and then unleash a variety of complex blitzing and zone blitzing schemes to keep opposing offenses guessing.  The physical demands by assignment within this defense requires a high degree of energy and the need to get off the field quickly to recharge the batteries for the next defensive series.  As such, you can see why a quick strike pass attack by our offense is essentially not compatible with the style of defense that we play.  We did win the time of possession battle overall this past season, but too many quick strike opportunities in the first half coupled with an inability to sustain drives and execute in the second half took their toll on an aging defense and a defense that may not have been in good enough condition due at least in part to Tomlin's cupcake training camp.  By the second half, and particularly the 4th quarter, this unit was gassed like Zyklon B.  LaMarr Woodley and Keyaron Fox's returns for TDs in the Vikings game were so painfully slow I could have timed them with a sundial.  Fox couldn't even conduct his post game interview because he was still winded.
But that's only one part of the story behind the collapse, although it is an important factor in the 4th quarter implosions.

The Secondary:
Losing Troy Polamalu, who is one of the best defenders in the game, obviously hurt our defense.  It wasn't just his game changing playmaking abilities that we missed, nor the fact that he is an integral part of our blitzing schemes, nor anything he contributes to the defense as a player.  His absence from the lineup was also critical in one other area that I don't believe has been discussed: and that is the fact that he is the veritable quarterback of the secondary.  Not only did we lose everything he brings to the defense as a player, we also lost his leadership and field general abilities.  The result was alot of miscommunication and missed assignments in the secondary, and I'm sure that many of you noticed on more than one occasion how secondary players looked lost in space.  I've seen the thread discussing Ryan Clark and people posing questions as to what caused such a dramatic drop off in his production and performance - well, this is a big part of it right here.  The other part of it is that Ryan Clark was frequently out of position not just because of miscommunication, but also in an attempt to compensate for deficiencies from Tyrone Carter, William Gay, and Ike Taylor.
Tyrone Carter is better suited as a backup Free Safety than a backup Strong Safety.  Filling in as an FS, he played a great game against the Broncos.  Filling in as an SS, he was a serious liability.  Many of the things our defense has done in recent years has been very heavily reliant, and even built upon, having Polamalu in the lineup.  His shoes are too big to fill, and Carter of all people is sure as heck not the one to even attempt it.  He couldn't carry Polamalu's jock strap.  It's going to be interesting to see what we do within the next few drafts since much of the success of our defensive scheme is dependent upon the Strong Safety position and an ability at that position to recognize and improvise based upon reading the offense.  Needless to say, the Troy Polamalu's of the world are a scarce commodity and for the time being we need a more serviceable backup.
William Gay was just not ready to be a full time starter at CB.  I still think he is an adequate nickel back, but he gives opposing receivers too much of a cushion and is never in position to make a play on the ball.  Despite the Gay bashing (sorry, couldn't resist) this past season, I think William Gay will work harder than ever to improve his game, so even though there will be a collective groan if he returns as the starter in 2010, we might be surprised.  Might.  Otherwise, our hopes rest on the cleats and hands of Joe Burnett or Keenan Lewis.
For as bad as Gay was in 2009, Ike Taylor was actually the most targeted cornerback in the league.  I don't know the exact final numbers because I'm not a stats guy, but I do know that as of the second week of December he had been thrown at 90 times, allowing a league high 54 receptions (60% completion rate), for 679 yards and two touchdowns while only breaking up 11 attempts.  An inability to make plays on the ball or garner interceptions is nothing new for good old brick hands, although he did ironically record his first interception of the season (and sadly, the only interception by a Steelers cornerback in 2009) on the final play of the final game.  Pathetic.  This entire unit needs to get better at making plays on the ball and generating turnovers and interceptions.  If not, they are going to continue to be easy targets and we will see much of the same in 2010.
As a quick side note, for all of you who wished we still had Bryant McFadden in place of Gay: McFadden was the second worst in the league at the time that I took note of Taylor's statistics.  McFadden also didn't have any interceptions, so I'm not trying to bust anyone's balls here, but he really would not have been the upgrade that many people were thinking.
The last factor in the 4th quarter meltdowns and overall horrendous play of the secondary is Tomlin's implementation of the infamous Cover 2.  The Cover 2 is what we saw alot of in the second half of the Super Bowl as well.  That defensive formation is more compatible with a 4-3 defense than a 3-4, which is part of the reason why it was successful for us in the 70's.  I won't address all of the intricacies of it because this post is already a monster and I have yet to even address the front seven, so let it suffice to say for now that it does not work well with our scheme nor with the personnel we had on the field in 2009.  Additionally, since I chucked BA under the bus in the other thread, I'll take a moment to steamroll Tomlin in this regard.  He spent 5 years as the Buccaneers secondary coach before being the DC of the Vikings.  The secondary is his specialty, and he shoulders a big part of the burden for an inability to correct these issues.
The Front Seven:
While Aaron Smith is probably the most underrated and underappreciated 3-4 DE in the league, it wasn't just his staunch presence against the run that we missed when he went on IR but also his ability to effectively combat double teams and tie up the line of scrimmage.  Any substandard play from our DEs will create problems and mismatches both in the run defense as well as the pass rush, since both DEs really need to hold their gaps to allow the linebackers to make the play as well as protect the ILBs by preventing O-linemen from reaching the second level.  Brett Keisel had a great year statistically, but he is the runt of the litter and sometimes struggles against some of the league's better O-linemen.  Smith's backup committee did a serviceable job, and by the end of the season Ziggy Hood began to show signs of why he was our first round draft pick. Overall, though, the DE play was adequate and a strong season from Casey Hampton actually helped to conceal any weaknesses from the guys to either side of him.  No real complaints against the D-line, and our run defense was still 3rd in the league.    
As a result of the Cover 2 and the secondary deficiencies, Dick Lebeau was much more conservative this season when it came to blitzing, and there were far more occasions of simple 3 and 4 man blitzes this season than the more complex 5-6 man blitzes that were a staple in 2008.  As stated above, Lebeau's defensive philosophy is built upon pressure but our failures and deficiencies in the secondary was a contributing factor to negating a more aggressive style of defense from our front seven.  In essence, it makes the entire defensive unit appear as though they've lost their identity or that they're even a little lackluster since we're so accustomed to seeing the more aggressive style of play.  Ultimately, Troy Polamalu's absence from the lineup and the cushions provided by William Gay were what was most detrimental to our blitz schemes as it created situations in which James Harrison (on Gay's side of the field) often ended up having to drop back into coverage to help compensate for an inability to defend against the short patterns, especially to that side of the field.  Although I can't provide exact numbers, I can guarantee you that James Harrison in particular dropped back into coverage far more frequently in 2009 than he did in 2008 and this had an obvious effect on his sack numbers.  Team sack totals were negligible between 08 and 09, but a decline in the variety and complexity of our blitzes as a result of the aforementioned deficiencies made the defense more predictable.
In coverage, James Farrior was a liability this past season.  It did not help matters that both of our ILBs were called upon more often to defend against the pass as a result of the things that I've already mentioned, and this was a weakness that opposing quarterbacks exploited.  Farrior's age, and perhaps his conditioning as well, created all kinds of mismatches in short patterns as he no longer had the foot speed to keep up with running backs or tight ends on shallower crossing routes and especially anything deeper than that.  There were also occasions where he was not in position to make the tackle on running plays.  Lawrence Timmons has all the speed and athletic gifts in the world but his football instincts, especially against the run, are suspect.  He still needs to get better at being in a better position to make the tackle although he is showing signs of improvement in terms of shedding blockers and pursuing the play/not giving up on a play.  Farrior may have suffered the most from Aaron Smith's absence as the double teams that Smith ordinarily commands allow Farrior to be in better position and without having to shed or avoid as many blockers.
Both Woodley and Harrison had very solid seasons and are the best 3-4 OLB tandem in the league by a landslide blowout.  Woodley continues to improve in all aspects of his game and seals the edge against the run as good or better than any other LOLB that we have ever had.  Despite his sack numbers being down, Silverback continues to show why he is, without argument, the most versatile OLB in the league.  He did take some bad angles sometimes or was blocked to the outside on runs that ended up going up through the B gap, but these were the rare exception and perhaps only highlighted (to me) because I spend so much time focusing on what Harrison is doing.  Overall, both OLBs were Pro Bowlers and did their thing (although Wood shouldn't have only made the roster by virtue of injuries and dropouts).
This thread is more about addressing the failures and deficiencies of the 2009 defense but I wanted to at least briefly give praise to our bookends as they were a focal point of my discussions during the 2008 season.
Dick Lebeau, likeTomlin, is a secondary specialist and by no means is old man Lebeau immune from criticism either as much as I hate to say it.  As I mentioned in the other thread, any failures that become chronic fall on the coaching staff to address in film study and at practices.  While the injuries to Troy and Aaron were an important cog in this wheel, let's not forget that most of these problems first reared their ugly head in the second half of the Super Bowl.  Troy and Aaron were both present for that game.  Its time to get rid of the Cover 2 or replace the personnel (CBs and FS)...or both.  The rest should be clear as to what needs to be addressed in the offseason and the draft experts on the board already know what our needs are by position. 
Thanks for reading.              
Category: NFL
Tags: Steelers
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