Pittsburgh Steelers: Should the Defense Be Upgraded?

Chris Gazze@ChrisG_PITCorrespondent IJanuary 15, 2012

SAN DIEGO - OCTOBER 08:  Troy Polamalu #43, Casey Hampton #98, and James Harrison #92 of the Pittsburgh Steelers enter the game against the San Diego Chargers during the 1st half of their NFL game on October 8, 2006 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

"Defense wins championships."

That is the mantra that the Pittsburgh Steelers have lived by since, well, since forever. But times are changing. Defense has become very difficult to play in the NFL.

The rules in place right now have made it virtually impossible to play outstanding defense and strongly favors the precision passing game seen in Madden video games.

Defense wins championships no more. Passing the ball and franchise quarterbacks win championships. Need evidence?

Though the offensive explosion has just recently hit the NFL, since 2004, Super Bowl winning quarterbacks include: Tom Brady (two), Ben Roethlisberger (two), Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.

Things should be no different this year, as Brady is once again in the AFC championship game against an embattled Joe Flacco, who is on the cusp of franchise status. In the NFC, it will be Eli Manning against the surprise Alex Smith.

But beyond the quarterbacks, it was offenses as a whole that carried teams to the playoffs this season. In fact, it almost seemed as though defense did not matter.

The New England Patriots (No. 2 offense, No. 31 defense) and Green Bay Packers (No. 3 offense, No. 32 defense) entered the playoffs as the top seeds in the AFC and NFC respectively. Prior to their stunning loss to the San Francisco 49ers, the New Orleans Saints (No. 1 offense, No. 27 defense).

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh's top-rated passing and scoring defense got beat by possibly the worst passing quarterback in the NFL, backups included.

Is it time that the Steelers re-think their team philosophy?

Now more than ever may be the time, as the defense has a lot of question marks entering the offseason.

Pittsburgh will likely have a hole at inside linebacker as long-time starter James Farrior may have played his final down with the Steelers and backup Larry Foote is no more than a part-time player.

Given the health and age of outside linebacker James Harrison, the Steelers have to question how much longer he can be an effective pass rusher.

However, the biggest problem that the Steelers have is with Casey Hampton.

Hampton suffered an ACL injury in the Steelers' loss to the Denver Broncos that will not require surgery. But can the 34-year-old, 325-pound Hampton recover from such an injury? That remains to be seen.

We haven't even mentioned that the Steelers could always use an upgrade at cornerback.

NEW ORLEANS - OCTOBER 31:  Casey Hampton #98 of the Pittsburgh Steelers kneels after being flagged for a late hit during the game against the New Orleans Saints at Louisiana Superdome on October 31, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  The Saints won 20-10 ov
Karl Walter/Getty Images

But is it even worth upgrading? Having the best scoring defense in the league wasn't enough to get by the Broncos. Would it be enough to defeat the Patriots, Packers, Saints, etc?

Consider, do the Steelers really need an elite run stopper, like Hampton, in the center of their defense when the league is all about passing? Does it matter who the inside linebacker is if they cannot cover the elite tight ends in the league? Does it matter who is rushing the quarterback with the quick passes seen today?

Finally, how many elite cornerbacks are there? What are the odds the Steelers can find that type of impact player?

That is a lot to ask for for one offseason, and even if Pittsburgh was able to address each area, would it matter?

It may be time to take a different approach. It may be time to transform their offense into a well-oiled, precision passing machine.

That would mean investing in quality offensive linemen who are better in pass protection. They would need to use the quickness of their receivers on quick, short passes and their big tight ends over the middle of the field. Most importantly, Roethlisberger and the coaching staff would have to adapt to and work toward these changes.

And when it comes down to it, when looking at the offensive prospects, the outlook is not too bad. Much of the personnel in place for the offense to be elite and they just need to begin playing like it.

With that said, for the defense, an upgrade is needed. The 49ers, even though it was a high-scoring affair, beat the Saints in part because of their defense flying around the field making plays. The New York Giants pressured Rodgers and did a great job in coverage and the Baltimore Ravens get their shot against Brady next week.

That's what the Steelers need to get back to, an aggressive defense that can fly around the field and make plays.

There are two ways to beat a good offense now. You have to get to the quarterback and create turnovers. Both are areas that the Steelers failed at this season.

Pittsburgh ranked 17th in the league with only 35 sacks and intercepted only 11 passes an while recovering only four fumbles.

To put that into perspective, seven playoff teams had at least as many interceptions (15) as the Steelers forced turnovers. The two worst defenses in the league were at the top in forced turnovers, as the Packers had 38 and the Patriots 34.

How can Pittsburgh get back to that?

Find a nose tackle who can occupy two blockers and free up lanes for pass rushers, but can also generate pressure himself. It is no longer necessary to have a nose tackle whose sole job is to stuff the run.

Add pass rushers so that if Harrison or LaMarr Woodley are injured they will not miss a beat. You can never have enough good pass rushers.

Finally, continue to add young, talented defensive backs. The Steelers found a couple of potential good ones in Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen last season, but you need at least three or four now. Oh, make sure they can make plays on the ball as well.

Defense alone may not win championships anymore, but sacks and turnovers certainly help the cause. The last I checked, that is on the defensive side of the ball.

Let's get back to playmaking on defense and championship football.


Follow me on Twitter @ChrisG_FC.


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