Steelers Fourth Quarter Defensive Troubles: Blame The Offense?

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Steelers Fourth Quarter Defensive Troubles: Blame The Offense?
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

It is not a secret that our beloved Steelers defense is not what it was last year.  We all know the Steelers defense has struggled in the fourth quarter this season.  Out of the Steelers six losses so far, the Steelers have led the game in the fourth quarter on five occasions. 

In the past, under Bill Cowher, when the Steelers had a lead in the fourth quarter, all of Steeler nation could sit back, relax, and say with confidence, "Game over!" 

Not so, this season.  We are now sitting on the edge of our seats HOPING the other teams offense doesn't produce a winning drive against our once-dominant defense. 

In the past, we had a different head coach with a different coaching philosophy.  Cowher was a defensive coach just like Tomlin.  Cowher was a motivator who stressed fundamentals much like Tomlin.  But unlike Tomlin, Cowher had a football philosophy that required the offense to run the ball.  And his offensive coordinators would hear about it if they didn't.  Cowher allowed Mike Malarkey to deviate from this philosophy for one season and it was a disaster.  Cowher fixed the problem and returned back to his "you have to run the ball to win a championship" mentality. 

Tomlin, on the other hand, is a believer in being flexible and allowing what works.  Tomlin has pretty much left the offense to Bruce Arians and has allowed Bruce to do what Bruce does, which is pass the ball.  Ben Roethlisberger has publicly praised and supported Bruce Arians and his offense.  But this is expected.  Ben Roethlisberger is a quarterback and quarterbacks like to throw the ball.  Therefore, a pass-happy offense usually equals a happy quarterback.  But this formula does not always produce a winning football team.

Are you wondering what any of this has to do with the fourth quarter defensive troubles for the Steelers? 

Well, let's take a look at the most important defensive player that has NOT been on the field for the Steelers during most of the losses this season: Troy Polamalu.  This is not going to be an article about how much the Steelers defense misses Polamalu.  Just bear with me and I will explain.

Remember last season when the Steelers running game was non existent?  The Steelers did not have an effective running game last season and the offensive line received a lot of criticism.  Some of the criticism was justified.  I remember games when the offensive linemen were either missing key blocks on running plays or getting called for costly penalties at crucial moments in a game. But soon all was forgotten, or at least forgiven, when the Steelers won the Super Bowl.  But not all of it was the offensive linemen's fault.  

Under Bruce Arians, the Steelers offense has become predictable.  The Steelers line up in a passing formation and pass almost two out of three downs.  When the Steelers do run the ball, it is an obvious run formation minus a true blocking fullback.  The line is stacked with tight ends without any lead blocker for the running back to run behind.

Every now and then a guard pulls, giving the running back a lead blocker, but these kind of plays are slow developing and take time.  This allows the defense, and everyone watching the game, the time to see from a mile away that a run play is developing. 

Willie Parker voiced his displeasure last season about not having a fullback to run behind.  Every running back will tell you they prefer to run behind a full back, especially in short yardage situations.  But Tomlin quickly censored Parker's comments with a witty and no-nonsense remark about walking by five Lambardi trophies every day and not five rushing titles. 

But does anyone remember Troy Polamalu's statements last season about the Steelers offense?  Troy stated that the Steelers defense is not built to coincide with a pass happy offense.  "Dick Lebeau's defensive philosophy is built on pressure.  The zone blitz is all about stopping the run first, which forces the opposing team to pass, then unleashing hell on the quarterback with different types of blitzes coming from different players (sorry, I couldn't resist adding the "unleashing hell" phrase).  This keeps the opposing offenses guessing and Lebeau usually wins the chess match nine out of ten times.

As Polamalu pointed out last year, during these blitzes, it usually requires the Steelers cover guys, including some linebackers, to have their backs to the quarterback as they are chasing receivers all over the field.  Polamalu stated that this type of defense requires extra energy and the need to get off the field quickly so they can rest and win the time-of-possession game. 

Under Bill Cowher, a fast attacking defense forces a turn over or a three-and-out series.  Then, a ball-controlling offense with a run down your throat mentality mixed in with a big play action pass or two to keep the defense guessing would finish the game.  Not so anymore. 

Bruce Arians himself admitted this season that he gets "greedy" and wants to score on almost every down with a big pass play. Its okay to have a big play offense, but not on every play.  This creates an unbalanced offense which is not healthy. 

The offense now is a pass, pass some more, and throw in a slow developing run play every now and then just to quiet the critics and appease the running back by saying the offense does run the ball once in awhile.  It is not a balanced offense. 

As a matter of fact, the play-calling is almost dysfunctional.  Opposing defenses are starting to play the pass first and are figuring out that the Steelers rarely run the ball on back-to-back plays.  So they are bringing extra heat when rushing the quarterback,  adding extra pressure on the offensive line with little room for error.  Add this with a quarterback who has a tendency to hold on to the ball and scramble for a big play and the result is a quarterback that gets sacked more than any other quarterback in the league. 

The result is a live-or-die by the big play offense that turns the ball over or goes three-and-out.  Every now and then, a big play is successful and the offense looks like a championship offense. 

But more often than not, the offense goes three-and-out and the defense is back on the field before they get a chance to catch their breath.  By the time the fourth quarter rolls around, the Steelers defense is severly fatigued.  

The Steelers are better in one aspect this year then last year—they are able to run the ball at will when they decide to.  The problem?  Bruce Arians is not willing to run the ball.  Instead of controlling the clock and letting the defense rest, he continues to call pass plays which results in more turnovers, sacks, and three-and-outs. 

Bill Cowher would not allow this nonsense.  He made sure his teams always had at least one bruising, blocking full back to help the running back close out a game.  As a former defensive coordinator, he understood how demoralizing it was to have a team run the ball down your throat in the second half of a game with a lead and not being able to do anything about it. 

The Steelers have all of the offensive weapons in the world (minus a true fullback).  From the running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, quarterback and now even a solid offensive line, the Steelers have all the tools necessary to be a great team. 

The only problem is now a stubborn offensive coordinator that gets pass-happy and seems more interested in passing stats then actually winning games.  

Arians was quoted earlier this year saying that his offense does not have a true run blocking full back.... "never had it and never will."  For a head coach to be "flexible" and allow what works, he allows his offensive coach to be stubborn. Tomlin should re-evaluate his stubborn offensive coordinator because it is costing the team games. 

Does this mean the Steelers defense gets a free pass? Absolutely not.  But remember, 90 percent of all pro football fans would give their right arm for their team to have a defense like the Steelers.  Also, the Steelers do miss guys like Aaron Smith and Troy Polamalu.  But we still have a very good defense. 

Ultimately, Tomlin is responsible for doing what is necessary to right the wrongs of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Just like when Cowher had to rectify Mularkey's pass-happy offense that resulted in turn overs and extra pressure on our defense, Tomlin should not just look at player personnel changes as a possible answer—he should be looking at coaching changes as well.  

Since Roethlisberger is a supporter of Arians, maybe Arians would be a better quarterbacks coach, who helps design passing plays, than an offensive coordinator.  We don't hear much about Ken Anderson and Roethlisberger's relationship anyway, so it may help to retain Arians as someone other than the one calling the plays.   

Troy Polamalu was right last year when he said the Steelers defense is not built or designed to be on the field for long periods of time.  He is by far the best player on a good defense.  He could very well be the best defensive player in the NFL, so his statements have credibility.  He is also not one to speak out of term, let alone speak out at all unless it is something important. 

It is a fact that teams who lead in time of possession and win the turn over game almost always wins the game.  A pass first and neglect the run type of offense hurts the chances of winning in these two categories, thus, hurting the Steelers chances of winning period. 

This year we are finally seeing Polamalu's statement come to fruition. We have a stubborn offensive coordinator who does not believe in running the ball. Or do we have a stubborn head coach not willing to make the necessary changes within the coaching staff? 

Bill Cowher was not shy about firing offensive coordinators if they were not working out.  Only time will tell how Tomlin will address this situation. But so far he hasn't addressed it at all.      

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