Recently, Jeff Fisher challenged his St. Louis Rams team to lead the league in sacks this year. No disrespect to Robert Quinn, Chris Long, Kendall Langford and Michael Brockers, but they're unlikely to come anywhere near that goal, especially with the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense taking on a devilish form this off-season.
The Steelers should be the team penetrating opposing passer's pockets most often next year as they have made significant changes this offseason.
AFC North Lead Blogger Andrea Hangst recently wrote that the Baltimore Ravens would have the best defense in the AFC North. While I have a huge amount of respect for my friend's opinion, I strongly disagree and would like to outline my own opinion.
I believe the Steelers' defense will once again be the dominating group it was in 2008, but it will do so in a different style. That year, the Steelers dominated the running game and used that domination to prevent teams from passing against them.
Coaches were terrified to call five or even seven step drops against the Steelers because James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley were so effective coming off the edges. As a result, very few deep passes were completed throughout the whole year against them.
If you have been following my writing this offseason, then you will already know that I believe the Steelers are entering this season with a better secondary than they have had for a long time.
Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and, to a lesser extent, Curtis Brown add a new dimension to the Steelers defense with their physical abilities. Unlike Deshea Townsend, William Gay and Bryant McFadden, the ghosts of the Steelers recent past at the position, the Steelers' current crop of cornerbacks excel in press man coverage.
Townsend, McFadden and Gay preferred to sit back in zones and rely on their agility to react to the ball and beat receivers to it. While they could not match up physically with their opponents, they could use their intelligence and quickness to get to the ball.
The Steelers' current corners can still do that with the added ability to shut down receivers one-on-one.
Keenan Lewis will move outside as a starter this year while Cortez Allen will become the nickel starter. Allen, in particular, is a fascinating addition. Last year, he shut down Rob Gronkowski when the Steelers beat the Patriots in the regular season.
With this new look secondary, the Steelers can do a multitude of new things.
Playing press coverage will disrupt the timing of opposing teams' offenses and force their quarterbacks to hold onto the football longer than intended.
That is presuming that the Steelers play press coverage on the play rather than look to trap the offense with a feigned coverage. Because the team's cornerbacks have the ability to play both man and zone coverage, the Steelers can mix more complex coverage schemes without exposing anyone, as they did in the past with William Gay and Ryan Clark.
More often than not, Clark was great last year when playing zone coverage. With better cornerback play, he will be able to carry out his own job without hesitation. While Clark will remain deep in zone, Troy Polamalu will be able to move closer to the line of scrimmage with more regularity this year than last.
Polamalu in the box is Polamalu at his best. He may not get as many interceptions if he moves closer to the line, but his overall impact on the opposing offense multiplies. Quarterbacks fear Polamalu, and when he is closer to the line, it is more difficult to see what he is going to do. Quarterbacks will generally check where he is after the snap when he is closer to the line.
The result of that? More hesitation. Meaning more time for the Steelers' pass rush.
It is not only the coverage that will help the Steelers' defense this year.
There is no doubt that losing Casey Hampton for however long will significantly hurt their run defense, but Steve McLendon showed last year that he can man the position for a stint. McLendon is certainly not Casey Hampton, but he is a two-way nose tackle opposed to a run stuffing specialist.
With McLendon on the field, the Steelers can expect a better push on the interior of the line.
Last year's first round draft pick, Cameron Heyward, should also take a step forward entering his second season. Heyward is a better pass rushing defensive end than both Evander Hood and Brett Keisel. He should see a lot of time in sub packages and the defensive line rotation.
Sub packages and third downs will be pivotal this year for the Steelers' defense.
Last year, with James Farrior in the lineup, the Steelers were handicapped on third down. By the end of the year, Farrior was splitting time with Larry Foote because Farrior couldn't cope in coverage. When Farrior was on the field on third downs, he more often than not blitzing the quarterback.
Farrior is not a good blitzer to begin with. Add to that, his blitzes became predictable for opposing offenses to the point that they could pick him up before the snap and easily handle him. Larry Foote's presence on the field will improve the defense as a whole and allow the Steelers to blitz the explosive Lawrence Timmons more often.
Both Timmons and Foote are versatile enough to blitz or drop in coverage so the unit as a whole will be less predictable.
However, Foote himself may not be on the field on third downs this year.
Depending on how he copes in the preseason, third round pick Sean Spence could see significant time on the field for the Steelers in sub packages. Spence is a linebacker who dropped to the third round in the draft because of his size. His speed, however, could make him a very versatile option for the Steelers on third downs.
Much like Polamalu and Timmons, Spence would give the Steelers a physical specimen to maraud around the field or to send after the quarterback. Spence's best fit appears to be as a 4-3 OLB, but with the Steelers, he will be able to focus on this specific role in the nickel defense.
While Casey Hampton isn't likely to be available for Week 1 this year, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley will be.
Last year, both starting outside linebackers missed games at different times. James Harrison broke his orbital bone against the Houston Texans and missed four games. He was also suspended for Week 15. He finished the season with nine sacks in 11 games.
Woodley was a much greater loss.
After Harrison missed a chunk of the first half of the season, Woodley went out with a hamstring injury in Week 8 and never returned to full fitness, despite appearing in the playoffs.
Prior to going out, Woodley was on one of his hot streaks. When they lost Harrison, Woodley notched 7.5 sacks in the next four games and finished the season with nine in 10 appearances.
Those nine came in eight games when Woodley was actually healthy.
Considering he did that with Jason Worilds and Lawrence Timmons starting across from him, the possibilities are endless when he plays with Harrison while they are both healthy. The exposure that Worilds and Chris Carter got last year can only have helped them.
That can come in handy if the Steelers want to bring in more pass rushers in sub packages like the New York Giants did last year.
The versatility of the Steelers defense entering this season is phenomenal. With a mad scientist like Dick LeBeau running the group, the prospects of what the Steelers will do this year makes me quiver slightly.
And I'm not even in the firing line.
Like the Steelers showed against the New England Patriots last year, they are not stubborn to the extent that they will always stick to their rigid 3-4 defense. LeBeau will use every possible player at his disposal to help the team.
He may have been forced to do so during that game last year, but the results can only encourage him to do it more moving forward.
Last year, NBC analyst Warren Sapp said this defense was "old, slow and over." It finished first in total defense and scoring.
This year, it's fast, young and experienced, or, in other words, the best defense in the NFL. No, not the AFC North...the N.F.L.
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