7 Reasons the Pittsburgh Steelers' Defense Will Rank No. 1 Again in 2012

Joshua HayesCorrespondent IIAugust 12, 2012

7 Reasons the Pittsburgh Steelers' Defense Will Rank No. 1 Again in 2012

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers have been identified as a defensive team as a matter of tradition, and the annual on-field results have continued to bear out this perception amongst those in Steeler Nation since long before the team's winning ways.

    Even dating back prior to the team's first every playoff win, a game and play appropriately dubbed as "The Immaculate Reception," men like the ferociously physical Ernie Stautner and peers have branded the Steelers defense as an imposing crew who would make opponents black n' blue from beneath their Black n' Gold.

    While the opposition's bruises have remained, their wins have since subsided in the wake of regular defeats, and the Steelers have transformed from lovable losers to vicious victors.  Names like Jack Lambert, Joe Greene, Greg Lloyd, Rod Woodson, Joey Porter and Troy Polamalu have carried on the intense defensive tradition in a winning way.

    Last year, even though critics like Warren Sapp spewed prognostications of gloom and doom, citing the team's age as a weakness, the experienced bunch had great success again.  Despite absorbing some criticism last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense trumped the toll of naysayers' bells, ousting the alleged singing of fat ladies and once again finishing ranked atop the entire NFL in total defense by season's end. 

    Naturally, despite a relative youth movement and release of "old" veterans, this season's defensive unit has naysayers foreseeing a collapse by virtue of the complete opposite argument.  Everyone's a critic, right?  In 2012, fans hope that the team will duplicate this success despite changes, locking the lips of cynics once again.

    Here are some of the reasons fans can be optimistic about a positive result and No. 1 rank again this upcoming season.

Optimism for Nose Tackle Production

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    Let's be frank: "Big Snack" was a big disappointment in 2011.  Casey Hampton certainly held the fort to some degree last season, but nobody confused his performance with the ever-reliable and consistently great play of his past.

    At the start of last season, Hampton bordered on crying foul over legal chop blocks that were taking him completely out of his game.  While he worked to fix the issue that plagued the entire Steelers defensive front early in the most recent campaign, he still lost a step over the course of the season, and his curbed speed and range made gap control more difficult for himself and the linebackers or occasional safeties playing support behind him.

    Now, with his career in question after a knee injury to close 2011, nobody quite knows how the nose tackle will respond.  The man in the middle that has defined the d-front for the team's second championship generation could return back to relative form; or, he could falter.

    The latter can't happen.  Nose tackle is the most important position along the defensive front, if not beyond that scope.  If the "Snack" can't get it back, somebody has to pick up the slack!  For the Steelers more than any other team, this is important.

    Why?

    With Dick LeBeau returning and Keith Butler committing to the Black and Gold—which shows the team is committed to Butler as LeBeau's successor—the team is clearly comfortable in maintaining its defensive scheme.

    The 3-4 is a wonderful defensive strategy.  Yet, it requires key parts. 

    And make no mistake about it that, no part is as important as the nose tackle. 

    Unlike the 4-3 alignment, which sees four down linemen and two tackles lined up to either side of center, the 3-4 utilizes a singular tackle at its core.  While the strategy allows flexibility with the looks seen upfront, it absolutely requires dominant play from the isolated tackle, or nose tackle.

    Plain and simple.  It's just that open and closed.  Period.

    The nose tackle often gets lost in the mass of the trenches, not showing up on the highlight reel with the sacks seen by dominant ends.  Yet, in the chaos along the line of scrimmage, the beef in the middle of the 3-4 defense dictates how much liberty and space those defenders working behind the front have to penetrate and/or control the line of scrimmage.

    It's not difficult conceptually: One guy with so much responsibility needs to be beefy.

    Haloti Ngata, Vince Wolfork, Kris Jenkins.

    The good news is that I believe the Steelers will see production at this position in '12 despite the pessimism of many, either from the gained experience and desire of Steve McClendon or the raw ability molded into professional production with Alameda Ta'amu.

    I didn't think I'd say this, but: I believe the key contributor will be McClendon. 

    Alameda Ta'amu, the Steelers' fourth-round selection, is a case study in mixed opinions.

    Many believe he needs to further develop to break free from a role of backup—or snap-seeker—and into the role of entrenched nose tackle. To which I say, have some faith in defensive line coach John Mitchell. 

    Yet, he's struggled so far in camp, taking a bit of heat from his coaches; hopefully, the phrase "par for the course" also applies to the greens at training camp in Latrobe, PA.

    Though nobody confuses him as a projected all-pro at the position, Steve McLendon filled in nicely in spurts last year.  I'm not sure if he can last an entire season or maintain consistency year-round, but if the game against the Eagles is any indication, I could be flat wrong!

    Three tackles?  One for a loss?  And a sack?  From a man who has shown up to training camp ripped, clearly in the best shape of his life?!

    He showcased his ability in the preseason opener, keeping integrity along the front in the face of an impending Michael Vick rush and confidently sacking the "passer."  He also did a great job in run support, getting penetration in each of the team's early defensive downs.

    At least in chunks, McLendon can get the job done, and early indications are that he can be a force beyond my early offseason expectations.  And, if he can be developed into a productive force on a proud defense by a renowned coaching staff, who should doubt that Ta'amu can also make that leap?

    Among three options, any of which has the chance to be viable, somebody should step up and take the throne!

Prayers for Health, Particularly at Linebacker

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    If James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley stay healthy, the defensive savagery in 2012 will automatically upgrade a number of notches.

    There is no need to over-examine or complicate the issue: With Woodley in the lineup last season, offenses were rattled.  His ability to come off the edge and create havoc in the backfield saw an unprecedented stretch of success in midseason, particularly during a win over the New England Patriots.

    Both linebackers make the defense better by leaps and bounds.  The absence of either has huge impact; that loss manifests in pressures, turnovers and wins in unison. 

    Ever since 2008, when the dynamic duo "got it started" with a strip-sack and touchdown on Monday Night against the Ravens, the pair have made the defense fearsome in tandem.

    Together, the whole is greater than the sum of their mutual parts, which is a truism that stands as testament for any unit. 

    While some veterans were let go, some remain on the roster, and critics will pick and read between the lines to find any reason to attribute them to an impending doom.  If they stay healthy, every member of this team will be an asset, experienced or otherwise.

    Bank on it!

Sean Spence Presents Coverage Speed at Linebacker

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    While he may not be a significant starter in the early going, expect the drafting of Sean Spence from "the U" (Miami Hurricanes, for those who aren't "hip") to pay some early dividends for the Black and Gold in 2012.

    It may not show right away in the stats sheet, but his presence will permeate into the rest of the defense.

    This transition will not happen overnight, though Spence will see playing time early due to the team's regular rotations and assignments. The linebacker position typically requires grooming, as has been seen in recent years with Lawrence Timmons (robbed of  the Pro Bowl two years ago) and Stevenson Sylvester.

    The loss of the leader, James Farrior, hurts, but nobody can deny he was slowing down.  Big plays from his early career were minimizing, and his coverage skills were consistently coming up just inches short dating back as far as three years ago. 

    Nevertheless, the introduction of Larry Foote as a full-time starter, which will be more fruitful than many fans predict, and the use of Sean Spence on select downs will equate to better pass coverage at the linebacker position.  It will also translate to more flexibility in the formations and blitz packages the team is able to effectively utilize.

    Particularly in the 3-4, when exotic blitzes against spread offenses requires able coverage of the intermediate field (or beyond) from capable speed linebackers, Spence's role could prove invaluable!  Likewise, his speed in the backfield thus far in the preseason shows off a more than capable pass rusher!

    Matriculating Spence's on-field impact even further, Lawrence Timmons will see a better balance of coverage and rush duties, having been forced to pick up slack in secondary assignments caused by the ultimate speed-killer: Father Time. A return to 2010 form for the potential Pro Bowl linebacker is expected by the higher percentage of Steelers fans.

Corner Improvement Across from Ike Taylor

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    For many seasons, a knock on the Steelers secondary was their inability to play press coverage on the outside receivers.  Fans' citations came to the forefront whenever a certain man named Brady and his certain "Evil Empire" came to town in 2010 and utterly dismantled the defensive backfield.

    Part of the reason for their decision to use a predominant zone scheme was the capability of their "other" corner.  Last season, the team grew more confident in its ability to play press man coverage, and the results indicated an obvious improvement, dismantling the Patriots in a 25-17 win that wasn't nearly so close.

    While this is one lone example against a single opponent, it is the preeminent example.

    The "other corner" across from Ike Taylor has been Bryant McFadden or William Gay.  While they relied on speed, change of direction and instincts as capable zone coverage corners, their physical skills locked in man-to-man coverage lacked.

    Likewise, the reliance on a cushion often betrayed Gay, who was constantly criticized for a lack of consistency, having an enhanced over-reliance on safety support (yes, I know all corner depend on safety support; I'm talking about shades of gray) and too often allowing faster receivers to gain separation on second moves over the top.

    Many supporters cited his key interceptions as evidence of his skill, which I will not dispute.  However, much of his success came in the nickel formation where he moved to the slot position last season, an area where I feel he is strongest.

    Comparatively, Keenan Lewis, the favorite to become the incumbent second corner, and Cortez Allen, the lead dog in the race for nickel coverage and possible starting threat, have a more physical coverage acumen (like Ike) and can excel in either zone or man coverage.  This will allow more defensive diversity, in my opinion.

    In a recent preview of the Steelers-Eagles game, writer Neal Coolong asked the following about Allen:

    How strong is he against the bigger receivers? Does he square up on tight ends? Can he keep pace with smaller, faster receivers around the field?

    Here's some promising film to go back and admire: In the game against the Patriots, Allen in particular was excellent in man coverage over the middle against stud tight end Rob Gronkowski.  If you can shut down "Gronk," well...

    That's a good sign to start, eh?

Dick LeBeau

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    "Duh," right?

    We've heard it a million times already, if only because his greatness as defensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers and a genius innovator can't be overstated.  Instead of analyzing the obvious, I'm going to simply allow many of the endless compliments about the great inventor speak for themselves.

    Matt Miller (Bleacher Report) writes the following in an article that also includes complimentary language from ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski:

    No other assistant coach in NFL history has made the mark that LeBeau has on the NFL landscape. LeBeau is credited with creating the popular "zone blitz" defense used by the Steelers from the mid-90s until today.

    He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010.

    And who else could look that good at 73 years old? That still blows my mind.

    Presenting his brother for enshrinement into the Hall of Fame, brother Bob LeBeau spoke to his sibling's character:

    My name is Bob LeBeau. Dick LeBeau is my younger brother. He’s also my hero. He’s also the best brother you could ever have, and it’s a great day to be alive. 

    Regarding Rex Ryan's claim as the best defensive coach in football, Chase Stuart of footballperspective.com responded with an evidenced analysis:

    ...if we are examining coaches by just yards allowed, Ryan doesn’t come in at #1 since 2005. Unfortunately for Rex, Tomlin and LeBeau got him.

    Troy Polamalu consistently heralds his defensive coordinator:

    I don't know any other way but his way of doing things.  He's the only defensive coordinator a lot of us have ever had. Anything he says that a DB needs to do ... you take it to heart, because he's not only the father figure but also someone who has put in the time as a player and a coach. Everybody respects that.

    While nobody is brave enough to question his innovations, anyone who questions LeBeau's direct statistical impact as a defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh needs only look at the Steelers' turnaround defensively from 2002-03 to the greatness of 2004.

    A defense, particularly in the secondary, whose heads were left spinning after being gutted for two years, immediately and almost permanently rose back to the elite of the NFL the second LeBeau came back through the door.

    Let me state this as kindly as is deserved: A-a-aaaaanybody that questions the main reason for continued defensive success as being LeBeau, even in the wake of their questionable playoff loss and defensive strategies in Denver this past January, is a dimwit.

The Best Safety in the NFL... and His Underrated Partner!

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    Ryan Clark is often recognized for his ability to "lay the lumber" on receivers, serving notice that the Pittsburgh defensive backfield truly is Steelers territory.  Few forget the unbelievable lick he laid on Willis McGahee in the 2008-09 AFC Championship Game.

    However, his defensive smarts and synchronicity with Troy Polamalu have helped the Black and Gold finish at or near the top of the league in pass defense, as well as average yards surrendered per pass.

    Also, Troy Polamalu is one of the greatest hybrid players in the game today, fulfilling defensive roles across the board. 

    While his disruptive nature is to the benefit of the Steelers, his role only works if his "backup quarterback" in the backfield serves as a stopgap over the middle of the field. Left on an island, Clark holds his own more often than not, an attribute most fans forget in light of his hard hits.

    With an earned confidence in his teammates in the defensive secondary and top-rate performance along the defensive front, the "man of all hats" is nearly as impossible to stop as he is unpredictable. 

    Polamalu is a true jack-of-all-trades, covering players in the passing game at all offensive positions (from running back to wideout), torpedoing out of his backfield to stop backs in their own, constantly disrupting quarterbacks (as a coverage man, blitzer, or containment end), and...and...

    The list goes on endlessly.  While there is an occasional trade-off for his high-risk vs. high-reward style, raise your hand if you would prefer to the game's best defender (yup, I said it!) to change his energetic style.

    If your hand remained down, you're smarter than Pete Prisco.  (Then again, Prisco has also proclaimed Peyton Manning to be superior to Tom Brady, which is an equally fallacious argument to the stance he takes in the linked article.)  Frankly, being wiser that Cap'n Pete isn't necessarily a compliment, but at least your hand isn't unwisely raised!

The Predictions of Decline Are Entirely Premature.

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    Words are cheap.  Performance counts. 

    Even our own at Bleacher Report are predicting doom and gloom (well, kind of...) for the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers.  They certainly have their reasons and make some interesting points, but I think the focus on possible decline is being magnified while the possibility of many key improvements is being ignored.

    Like Sapp's negative expectations for the aging defense last season, which didn't bear out in the big picture (keep riding that Broncos game, naysayers!), many seem to expect a falloff.

    In my opinion, the reasons are wrong.  Words are just words.  Hopefully, the Steelers prove me correct with their actions.

    Reasons for the falloff include:

    —Losing Hines: How productive was he in 2011, when the team went 12-4?

    —The Haley/Ben relationship: Production cures everything, and relationship analysis from outside of any closed door is not credible.

    —Newcomers at the offensive line and...defensive line (?): Um, worse than Kemoeatu?  Also, everyone cites the loss of veterans, but they forget great players taking over at those positions like Hood and Keisel.

    —Rookie expectations at key positions: If age isn't the fault, youth is. 

    —Age at other positions: If youth isn't the fault, age is. 

    Placing the focus primarily on the defense, many will cite the Broncos game as evidence of decline.  It was merely an aberration, simply evidence of an ill-advised game plan.

    Tebow struggled all season with concise, accurate, intermediate throws in tight windows while accounting for safety coverage, and the team unwisely assisted.  They were also unable to get pressure despite an increased presence in the box, giving a great athlete plenty of time to throw deep against single coverages.

    That is not evidence of upcoming failure. 

    Also, while some critics will cite the loss of key veterans (i.e., Farrior, which is addressed on the Sean Spence slide), others will see the presence of too many older vets as the problem.

    Whether ying or yang, the fact is that the team performs well when people overlook them, and they've yet to display any glaring evidence of a falloff extreme enough to warrant anything less than an elite ranking after 2012

    Words are worthless without looking at the whole picture; in 2011, the whole picture, in spite of many predictions, was a solid portrait.  The picture should be vibrant again in 2012.