Patriots' Win Proves Steelers' Defense Is Better Without James Farrior

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistOctober 30, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 30:  William Gay #22 of the Pittsburgh Steelers prepares for the game against the New England Patriots with teammates Larry Foote #50, Lawrence Timmons #94 and Ike Taylor #24 at Heinz Field on October 30, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers' dominant victory over the New England Patriots wasn't perfect, especially considering they only won by six points in the end.

However, for the first time this year, the Steelers were genuinely elite on both sides of the ball for a full 60 minutes of football.

For the first time in 15 consecutive games, the Patriots were held to under 20 points. This is a huge feat for a Steelers defense that was dominated by Brady and co. last season. What makes it even more satisfying for Dick LeBeau's group is that they had by no means been meeting their own standards this year.

LeBeau himself must take a huge amount of credit for his play-calling. For a coordinator who has carved a hall-of-fame career partially with his zone defense, LeBeau all but abandoned the notion to match up to the Patriots' receivers.

The athleticism of Keenan Lewis, Ike Taylor, Ryan Mundy and Cortez Allen, as well as a strong showing from much-scrutinized nickel cornerback William Gay, allowed LeBeau to pit his secondary in man coverage against the Patriots' playmakers.

However, it is not only the emergence of youngsters like Lewis, Allen and Mundy that gave LeBeau this new scheme versatility.

While Lewis' ability to take Aaron Hernandez, amongst others, out of the game was crucial, and the key to this new defensive dimension does ultimately lie in the back end, the athleticism at linebacker was also crucial, as coverage is only as strong as its weakest link.

The Steelers beat the Patriots without two players who are considered crucial leaders on either side of the ball.

Hines Ward's value to the offense is undoubted, and his place in the team won't be under threat despite the dominant showing of Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. The more receivers on offense the better.

James Farrior, on the other hand, may have started his last game for the Steelers. Even though Stevenson Sylvester did not feature much, despite being listed as the starter in Farrior's place, the overall team speed the Steelers had with Ryan Mundy, or an extra defensive back, was noticeably better.

There were many occasions when Troy Polamalu lined up as a linebacker, and while this is not a long-term option, the fact that Brady did not have a slow player behind the defensive line to pick on was crucial to the game plan.

Larry Foote was the slowest member of the team without his hand in the ground, and he was very impressive playing Farrior's role. Foote may not possess the leadership, or hard-hitting ability of Farrior, but he is not that far behind.

What Foote does have in Farrior's place is greater versatility and athleticism.

In what is now a passing league, the Steelers would be smart to sacrifice a slightly better run stuffer for an all-around linebacker. Once James Harrison returns from injury, the Steelers could return Lawrence Timmons to inside linebacker.

Timmons was always said to be better suited to play Farrior's role in the team.

While Farrior's leadership is unquestionably valuable, that leadership can be a benefit from the sideline. The Steelers aren't a team lacking in leadership. Guys like Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu, Casey Hampton and even LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons are all seasoned veterans at this stage.

Leadership is something that every team needs, but it is not so vital that you allow for a physical weakness. Farrior's play this year hasn't been good by any standards. He may have two sacks and 45 tackles, but statistics mean nothing on defense.

He has those sacks because he has to blitz in passing situations rather than be a liability in coverage. Foote didn't have that problem and it was evident more than once when he faked out Brady on third down by dropping from the line of scrimmage.

This is not something that Farrior can do anymore because he does not have the required speed to keep up with the shifty backs and receivers playing the game today.

Farrior is 36 years of age. The fact that he has lasted this long is a testament to how great a player he has been. However, he is not that player any more. Much like Aaron Smith, it is time for Farrior to move aside and allow the younger players to take over. Unlike Smith, Farrior will still be able to contribute in some fashion.

The Steelers would be smart to make use of the talented cover players they have outside. Ike Taylor has always been a brilliant man-cornerback, while Keenan Lewis is definitely built to shadow receivers all around the field.

In a passing league, playing two guys like that is a luxury that few teams have.

Playing zone coverage in order to incorporate an unnecessary chink in the armor is counterproductive. With more physically gifted coverage players around the field, the Steelers will be able to get more out of Troy Polamalu by also allowing him to roam more, as he did in 2007.

Polamalu may not have had a turnover tonight, but he did look like a completely different player to the one who has played to this point of the season.

That is a knock-on effect of James Farrior's absence.

Farrior was a great linebacker for this team. He is unquestionably the leader of this team and the heart of the defense. However, much like Keith Brooking moving aside for Sean Lee in Dallas, there comes a time when leadership leads you to a reduced role.

There is always a worry to overreactions when teams have victories such as this one. Many in the media will pronounce the Steelers the AFC favorites and doom the Patriots as frauds. Don't get me wrong, this remains just one game. However, Farrior's issues have been obvious for the past few years.

This was just the first time they were totally exposed.


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