It is not surprising that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense is struggling this year. The unit that has perennially been one of the best in the league is not the same without two of its top stars.
The loss of James Harrison and Troy Polamalu has been particularly problematic in the early part of the season as the Steelers’ defense has failed to apply pressure on the quarterback and force turnovers.
Both of these were issues last season as well, but the Steelers were still good enough to be the top scoring defense in the league. However, the same cannot be said about this season.
Pittsburgh has allowed points per game and just had no answer for Peyton Manning or Carson Palmer in their two losses.
The biggest boost for the defense will be to get Harrison and Polamalu back in the lineup, but when will that happen, and when it does happen, how effective will each player be?
It may be a fairly long wait for Harrison, who had to leave Wednesday’s practice early. Harrison’s agent Bill Parise told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette that he hopes Harrison can still return soon.
“It’s a little bit of a setback,” said Parise. “Hopefully, it’s not something that will derail our plans.”
There is still a chance that Harrison could return for the game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, but that seems unlikely now.
Even when Harrison returns, his knee has been bothering him since the spring, and the likelihood of him playing to his usual standards is not very good.
The news is a bit better for Polamalu, who was able to practice this week. He told Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that his injured calf “feels much better” and that he hopes to play against the Eagles.
Pittsburgh needs Polamalu and his playmaking ability and his teammates have acknowledged this fact.
LaMarr Woodley told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he believes that the return of the two defensive starters will provide a nice boost.
“It’ll help,” Woodley said. “Those are key guys back, that definitely makes a big difference on this defense. So having them back would definitely be great for this defense.”
But if they can’t return, Ryan Clark acknowledged that the defense has become predictable. His solution? He told the Post-Gazette that it is about execution of the defensive calls.
“Coach [Dick] LeBeau puts us in a call, we have to execute the right way. It doesn’t matter if you know what we’re doing if you can stop it.”
Opponents have not had much trouble stopping it. The Steelers only have five sacks and two forced turnovers in three games.
Part of the issue is the personnel that Pittsburgh is sending out onto the field. Ryan Mundy is a liability filling in for Polamalu and Chris Carter and Jason Worilds have been nearly invisible replacing Harrison.
But are these fixable problems? That is difficult to determine.
As Clark said, the Steelers’ defense needs to execute, and Mundy has struggled in coverage while Carter and Worilds are unable to win their matchups to apply pressure on the quarterback.
Without a pass-rushing threat on the right side, Woodley can easily be double-teamed, making him a non-threat rushing the quarterback.
To combat this, LeBeau is going to have to get creative with his blitz calls. He may need to blitz more often as well.
LeBeau may be required to send some cornerback blitzes since the linebackers are not winning their matchups. He also needs Lawrence Timmons to step up.
Timmons has been a non-factor for virtually the entire season and only made one noteworthy play against the Raiders last week. That is simply not good enough for a player who is supposed to be one of the team’s best defenders.
But using Timmons blitzing up the middle would be a nice change. Larry Foote is not strong enough to get by most blockers, but Timmons is. He also has a tremendous burst that can sometimes overwhelm blockers up front.
Besides changing up their blitz schemes, there are very few personnel changes that they can make to upgrade the defense. But there are two players who should get more playing time.
There is no excuse for Steve McLendon to be playing behind Casey Hampton.
McLendon is a much more explosive player who can defend the run and collapse the pocket. For a team that is struggling to generate pressure on the quarterback, getting pressure from a defensive lineman would be huge.
Hampton offers nothing rushing the quarterback and is a shell of his former self against the run. He is easily pushed off the ball and that shows as the Steelers struggle against the run.
Pittsburgh would not have that same problem with McLendon in the lineup. He would against the pass in three- and four-man rush situations as well as freeing up the linebackers against the run.
The other player who could step in is Cameron Heyward.
Heyward has barely seen the field as well and he needs playing time if he is ever going to improve.
Brett Keisel is slowing down as a starter and while he still has potential. Ziggy Hood is just not a productive defensive end for the Steelers.
Heyward is a powerful body, who like McLendon, could not only give a boost to defending the run, but would offer something as a pass-rusher as well.
More playing time for these two players could be integrated into a 4-2-5 scheme as the Steelers spend more time defending the pass.
McLendon and Hood would be two perfect fits for the interior of this formation while Heyward and Woodley could man the ends. It also provides enough beef up front if teams choose to run out of a passing formation.
At this point, the problem isn’t LeBeau’s scheme, it is the lack of talent required to execute it and the Steelers are going to have to live with that fact.
They can wait for their stars to return, but they alone are not the answer. The Steelers still need to find a way to generate pressure and force turnovers and if they don’t it will be a long season.
LeBeau will need to adjust how he calls the game and the team needs to use the young talent on the defensive line, but beyond that, there is very little else that they can do.
The Steelers’ defense isn’t as bad as they have shown, but they are not the elite defense that they have been for the past decade either.
The key will be to find the right combination that will place them in the middle of the pack. That will be good enough—along with an upgrade offense—to get the team back on track and winning games.