In a previous article I put forth the case that the problems with the Steelers so far are not primarily on the defensive side of the ball. My contention was, that while defensive performance has decreased somewhat from last season, the offense needs to make up the difference, but has been woefully unable to do so.
That being said, I now counterbalance that argument by saying that the lackluster results by the Steelers so far this season are not solely the fault of the offense. The defense has responsibility as well, with, or without Troy Polamalu being in the lineup.
- On third down, and two yards to go for Cincinnati, why are the Steelers cornerbacks playing 8-10 yards away from the line of scrimmage?
- On fourth down, and 10 yards to go for Cincinnati, why is James Farrior even on the field, and Lawrence Timmons is not?
- With quarterbacks taking three, or four step drops, and releasing the football quickly, why is there little, or no pressure up the middle to disrupt the quarterback, or to prevent him from having clear lines of sight downfield?
Soft Coverage By the Secondary
There have been times when the defense needs to play off the line more than usual, in a bend, but don't break philosophy. The 2003 season comes to mind. The Steelers secondary was woefully weak that year, and couldn't compete straight-up with opposing receivers. The next year Dick Lebeau was brought back to rebuild the defense, and has done an outstanding job.
Now, the secondary has the size and speed to run with any receiver in the league. They don't need to play off the line of scrimmage ever, yet they routinely do. Is it any wonder that they consistently give up short to medium gains on passing plays, allowing opponents to sustains drives, and win games?
James Farrior is NOT a Pass Defender
As for James Farrior, his forte, and his primary responsibility, is to stuff the run at the line of scrimmage, and he has been rather good at that. But wait! He actually knocked down a pass against Cincinnati! And I mean a real pass downfield, not just a lame duck or a screen pass behind the line of scrimmage.
This guy hadn't defensed a pass in almost an entire season, but apparently his one pass defensed again Cincinnati was enough to convince the coaches that he should remain in the pass defense on the most crucial play of the game: Cincinnati at the Steelers 15 yard line, fourth down, 10 yards to go, less than one minute remaining, Steelers leading by four.
So the coaches call a timeout, remove Lawrence Timmons, the Steelers' fastest and most athletic linebacker, and keep James Farrior as the lone linebacker in the defensive set. On a play that everyone and his grandmother knew would be a pass.
Keyaron Fox, or Arnold Harrison, who substitutes for Farrior, could have made the play.
A defensive set with seven defensive backs could have made the play.
The Pitt Panther defense could have made the play.
Whistler's mother could have made the play.
But James Farrior could not.
Again I ask, why is Farrior even on the field in that situation, or on any third, or fourth down obvious passing situation? It only serves to hamper the pass defense, which has been the defensive weakness thus far this season.
The Three Step Drop Neutralizes the Steelers Pass Rush
The Steelers were second in the NFL in sacks last year, getting outstanding results from the outside pass-rushing tandem of James Harrison, and LaMarr Woodley (the best two in the NFL, in fact).
So far this season, the Steelers defense has faced opposing quarterbacks who are generally slow, lack mobility, and do not run well outside of the pocket (although Cutler is so-so). Yet, the defense has only five sacks in three games, and only two from Harrison and Woodley.
Where's the pass rush?
It hasn't gone anywhere, actually. The pass rush is still there, but the quarterbacks aren't.
The Steelers get to the quarterback with intense pressure from the speedy outside linebackers, but with little, or no pressure up the middle. Opposing offensive coordinators have figured out that the Steelers pass rush can be neutralized by having the quarterback take only a three, or four step drop and releasing the ball quickly, a la Tom Brady.
Under those conditions, Superman and The Flash couldn't get sacks. And no offense to Harrison and Woodley, but they're not Superman and The Flash. Trying to get to the quarterback in such a situation is like trying to drive from Pittsburgh to Cleveland in two hours by going through Chicago. It just doesn't happen.
The defense must either blitz more, or from different positions in the defensive set to overwhelm, or confuse the pass protection, or get much more pressure up the middle to disrupt the quarterback's timing and downfield vision.
So far, neither is happening. As a result, while still formidable, the Steelers defense is more vulnerable.
The bottom line is this: The Steelers defense is definitely not nearly as aggressive as it needs to be.
Last season the defense was exceptional, but had no margin for error. This season, we see a little error, and we also see the undesirable results.
And please, don't tell me that Troy Polamalu's absence is the reason. With, or without Troy, with only minor adjustments, the Steelers defense could have secured wins instead of giving up losses. Just think of how good this defense would be with minor adjustments, AND with Troy in the lineup. Probably the best ever.
So, for those of you who may think that the defense is absolved:
It's Not Just The Offense, Either