When the Pittsburgh Steelers headed into their bye week after three games, there were calls for Dick LeBeau's immediate removal as defensive coordinator, questions about how the team's defense had suddenly become so pitiful and plaudits for Ben Roethlisberger and the offense doing everything possible to keep the Steelers in games.
My how things have changed.
The Steelers recorded their seventh victory of the season, a 23-20 triumph over archrival Baltimore, on Sunday afternoon. The defense was a huge part of that win.
In fact, the defense has been a bright spot in each game since the Steelers were drubbed by the Tennessee Titans two weeks after their bye.
Let's take a look at this defensive resurgence and figure out exactly how it came about.
The Key Problems Pre-Bye Week
To understand just how far this unit has come, it's essential to remember just how bad they were and why.
Going into the bye week, the Steelers had three key issues on their defense:
1. The cornerbacks couldn't stop receivers from burning them. When they did, they committed penalties.
2. There was no pass rush to speak of. Quarterbacks were living the high life.
3. The scheme was not working at all. Teams were reading it like a book.
Now that we've got a little refresher on the issues, here's a look at how Pittsburgh has overcome each one.
Perhaps the most amazing development is how well the defensive backs have played despite missing Troy Polamalu for almost the entire season.
The resurgence started with Keenan Lewis and Ike Taylor, who've become a deadly tandem at the corner spots. Lewis, who seemed to be adjusting slowly to starting when the season began, has turned it on lately and has become a solid contributor who plays mistake-free football.
Taylor looked to be the antithesis of everything he'd been for years. He couldn't cover. He committed an unbelievable number of pass interference penalties. He was just awful. Since he showed up big in the game against Cincinnati, he's been the solid player of old.
Ryan Mundy wasn't getting it done in place of Polamalu, so the team went with aging veteran Will Allen. While Allen isn't going to be confused with Polamalu, he has been solid and has helped shore up the middle of the defense.
Ryan Clark is the only player who's been consistent the entire season, and he probably deserves Pro Bowl attention for his work. His play has held this unit together, and he emerged as a big playmaker while Polamalu was shelved.
Part of the problem early for Pittsburgh stemmed from the fact that the Steelers couldn't field anything close to a healthy corps of linebackers. Chris Carter, basically the third-string outside linebacker, was starting in place of James Harrison and Jason Worilds.
Now, Harrison has been back for a while and has played a key role in revitalizing the pass rush. The Steelers are still not stacking up the sacks as they had done for years, but they are keeping quarterbacks on their toes.
LaMarr Woodley has been in and out of the lineup with various injuries, but he's played excellent ever since Harrison returned. Carter simply generated nothing and added nothing, so it was easy for an offensive line to keep Woodley out of the play.
Now Harrison and Woodley can team up and get back to their old tricks.
Worilds has been great too in spot duty and gives the Steelers a good relief option for Woodley or Harrison when needed.
The inside tandem of Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons took some time to jell but has been very successful since the game against the New York Giants. Timmons has really turned it on lately with two interceptions and some sure tackles.
The low point for Dick LeBeau's scheme came in Week 3 against the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders have been poster children this season for dysfunctional football, but they looked very good against the Steelers defense.
Carson Palmer, no stranger to the schemes of Dick LeBeau, seemed to be reading from his play sheet the entire game. He checked out of plays perfectly and found the soft spots on every down. It was a disaster.
That's a huge reason why LeBeau went into the bye week with fans crying for his removal.
Since the bye, things have gotten steadily better. LeBeau has been more willing to allow his corners to play a mix of coverage schemes so that they can maximize their physicality. That was a key mistake earlier this year.
Another improvement came from the willingness to move away from a defensive setup dependent on safety help. Without Troy Polamalu, the Steelers simply couldn't play their usual games.
Now, the Steelers play a more conventional 3-4 scheme where the blitzes come from the linebackers more often than not. There hasn't been a ton of blitzes from the secondary. While this isn't LeBeau's typical style, it has worked wonders for this unit.
Suddenly, the Steelers are preventing opponents from scoring many points. While they haven't gotten the knack for turnover creation, they have become stingy.
The Pittsburgh Steelers defense has been a huge part of their success. They've come up big since the team's bye week and have eased the pain of losing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the past three games.
While this unit is far from perfect and still needs an infusion of youth in the front seven, they are back to being a top unit in the NFL.
Anyone who thought that could be said as Mike Tomlin's team headed into the locker room in Oakland can be proud of their prescience. Most fans and even this writer had them written off as too old.
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