Dick Lebeau must be a huge Jakob Dylan fan.
You know, the musician (and son of Bob Dylan) who wrote the following in the hit song, One Headlight: "Hey, come on try a little. Nothing is forever. There's got to be something better than in the middle."
How else can we explain the semi-schizophrenic defensive performance this season? The defense squashes the run like a Mack truck flattens a mosquito, but plays the pass as if it's driving with one headlight.
Throughout the trials and tribulations of the defense this season (and last season as well, I might add), and particularly conspicuous in the team's losses and near-losses, is a rather puzzling lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks from the middle of the field.
How did the lowly Cleveland Browns defense defeat the offense of the mighty New Orleans Saints? And then answer the claims that their performance was a fluke by repeating it the very next week against the even mightier New England Patriots? And then repeat it again by taking the New York Jets to overtime before losing?
How did the Oakland Raiders, a league laughingstock who haven't so much as even sniffed a spot in the playoffs in seven years, defeat the top-ranked offense in the NFL, owned by Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers? And then two weeks later defeat the sixth-ranked offense owned by the Kansas City Chiefs? And then two weeks later knock off the eighth-ranked offense of the Denver Broncos?
How did the New York Jets manhandle Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense? And Denver's? And Houston's seventh-ranked offense?
Moreover, how did the woeful (at the time) Baltimore and New Orleans defenses, and the still-woeful New England defense confound the Steelers offense (both rushing and passing)? And how did Cincinnati do it, losing only because of costly special-teams turnovers that resulted in fourteen points for the Steelers?
In all of these examples, there is a common defensive strategy employed by the victors (and almost-victors): They stacked the line of scrimmage, played opposing receivers tight, and applied enormous pressure from the middle of the field. They took a calculated risk. They dared the opposing offense to beat them with the pass.
And they won.
Meanwhile, the Steelers defense rushes only four or five players the majority of the time, rarely applies pressure from the middle, and plays soft coverage in the secondary, expecting to keep the ball in front of them. And how has that worked out for them?
The Steelers' defense is ranked 22nd in the NFL so far this season. And that is with a healthy Troy Polamalu. Last season the pass defense was ranked 19th. And we know how that turned out.
So much for the "bend but don't break" philosphy. Bend but don't break? How about, "don't bend and don't break"? I rather much better like that idea.
The Steelers defense has seldom used much pressure from the middle this season, preferring their normal outside attack from Messrs. Harrison and Woodley. Too, too many times we have seen the outside rush take forever and a day to get to the target, only to watch as the quarterback picked apart the secondary because he had too much time to find a receiver.
However, when the defense has brought pressure up the middle, good things have happened.
James Farrior has three sacks this season (all in the last four games—when was the last time that happened?), Larry Foote has one, and Lawrence Timmons also has three, even though he drops back into pass coverage much more than any other linebacker on the team.
All of those sacks are the result of pressure in the middle (you didn't expect Farrior and Foote get to the quarterback from the outside, did you?). And Harrison and Woodley each have a sack or two from stunting to the inside.
The question is, why don't the Steelers employ this high-pressure strategy much more than they do? Did they think that giving Drew Brees MORE time to throw would give the Steelers a better chance to stop him? Did they think that Tom Brady would throw for FEWER yards and touchdowns with fewer players threatening to sack him?
As the Steelers have stubbornly continued to "do what we do" with rigid regularity, their opponents have learned exactly what "what we do" is, and have devised ways to counteract it. Yet, when other teams have figured out successful strategies and tactics to use against Steelers opponents, do the Steelers use those same strategies and tactics against those same opponents?
One would think that they would at least try, but it seems as if they have little interest in sincerely making adjustments to "what we do." Consequently, smart coaches like Bill Belichick—who are willing to make whatever adjustments are necessary, whenever they are necessary—always seem to be one step ahead of the Steelers, and their success in doing so speaks for itself.
If the Steelers expect to have a real shot at another Super Bowl title, the defense has to change. There is no way that the Steelers beat Tom Brady or Philip Rivers or Peyton Manning, or even Joe Flacco or Mark Sanchez or Matt Cassel, by sitting back and letting them throw the football. They need to make life miserable for playoff-caliber quarterbacks.
And the way to do that is to get in the quarterback's face, prevent him from seeing downfield, give him little time to find receivers (whether they are open or not), and then obliterate him.
"There's got to be something better than in the middle?" I think not. Dick Lebeau would do better to subscribe to the motto, "Good things happen in the middle."
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