Although the Steelers managed to defeat the Eagles, 16-14, Pittsburgh's schedule remains difficult and even more so with Polamalu leaving Week 5's game early. To that end, let's view the outlook of what lies ahead for Pittsburgh as the season progresses.
Obviously Polamalu's presence has been a key factor regarding the Steelers' defensive success in recent history. Well, without him, Pittsburgh becomes quite vulnerable downfield.
No one on Pittsburgh's defense possesses Polamalu's instincts. His playmaking skills are arguably the best in pro football. Not seeing him patrolling the secondary will be more appealing to opposing quarterbacks in taking additional shots against the Steelers' secondary.
Because of how well Pittsburgh can rush the passer, the pass defense saw numerous turnover opportunities from ill-advised throws. Dick LeBeau's defense could also play more Cover 1, with Polamalu staying back deep to bait quarterbacks or force them to hold onto the ball longer.
In short, the rush simply got more time to apply pressure. Without that presence in a Cover 1 or Cover 3 scheme, however, receivers will press harder up the middle and instead of blitzing, additional coverage underneath will be needed to compensate the intermediate level.
Adds Pressure to Offense
Any time a key player goes out, regardless of whether its offense or defense, pressure get increased.
And when that someone is like Polamalu, the offense must produce more efficiently to assist the defense. Here, it's about utilizing a more balanced approach and controlling the game tempo.
Doing so simply keeps the opposing offense off the field and Pittsburgh then allows more time for in-game adjustments. What Ben Roethlisberger and Co. must now be concerned with, however, is more pressure from defenses.
Stacked boxes and a constant barrage of blitzes will occur, because forcing Roethlisberger to throw earlier helps the coverage. In hindsight, an eerily similar attack to what the Steelers would do more with Polamalu.
Pittsburgh's pass protection still must continue to improve and press coverage with inside leverage will limit the receivers' patterns less time to develop. If the Steelers fail to put up points each week, it only gets tougher—especially within the division.
The AFC North Philosophy
Divisional games in pro football are always difficult, but the AFC North is a different kind of monster.
Sending three teams to the postseason in 2011, 2012 has that same potential with the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens. That said, these teams, along with the Cleveland Browns will hit Pittsburgh between the tackles.
All possess the ability to run the rock and set up off play-action.
Fielding more balanced offenses to Pittsburgh, this division will look to keep the Steelers defense on the field if Polamalu remains out. This is strictly about wearing the Steelers down, because giving Big Ben additional opportunities can come back to bite anyone.
The 2012 season isn't going to be easy for the Steel City, although we have seen Pittsburgh get it done against a rough schedule before.
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