Joe Greene. Jack Lambert. Mel Blount. For a long time, these men were revered. They were the Pittsburgh Steelers. Through and through, these were some of the best players to ever step foot on a football field. For many years, these were the names you thought of when someone mentioned “defense”.
James Harrison. Troy Polamalu. Brett Keisel. Many years later, these men composed one of the best defensive units since the 1976 Steelers. In 2008, the Steelers had a remarkable season on defense. Polamalu and Harrison were the leaders of a defensive unit that ranked first in points allowed, yardage and sacks. A feared unit. A revered unit.
Flash forward to 2014, and this Steelers defense looks… different. Sure Polamalu, Harrison and Keisel are on the roster still, but with six more years of wear and tear on their bodies and this is a unit that wasn’t revered nor feared. It was a unit that many teams simply walked over in 2014. The reasons for this are plenty, but there is one that sticks out more than the rest: age.
FATHER TIME ALWAYS WINS
Once upon a time, Polamalu was considered perhaps the greatest strong safety of all time. His play and demeanor changed how teams played against the defense. I could talk all day long about the excellence that was Polamalu in his time as a Steeler. Like you, I remember some of his greatest moments. The Flacco interception returned for a touchdown to seal the AFC Championship Game. The stop on fourth down against the Ravens by jumping over the line of scrimmage and grabbing Flacco, stopping forward progress and giving the offense the ball back to seal the game. The forced fumble against, you guessed it, Flacco recovered by LaMarr Woodley and taken down inside the Ravens five yard line. The bigger the game, the bigger Polamalu shined and this held true for a long time. The stage never seemed too big for him and, in fact, he seemed to thrive in such moments. He changed the way the strong safety position is played. Without him, there is no Kam Chancellor. His instincts and ability to be around the football were second to none. Whether he was jumping over the line of scrimmage or making one handed interceptions, he seemed like a human highlight reel.
Then, like every other before him, time and injuries began to wear him down. His speed started to decline and he was around the ball less and less. The instincts were still there, but the body wasn’t. He began to rely too heavily on his instincts and this burned him. Teams began to isolate him in coverage and throw at him knowing full well that he wasn’t the player he once was. This was an all too common theme in the 2014 season. Missed tackles, explosive plays and lack of speed. The Steelers defensive unit as a whole struggled with this for much, if not all of the season, but this rang all too true for Polamalu. Like many before him, Polamalu is likely to be a cap casualty as his cap hit of $8,250,000 in 2015 just cannot be justified for the level of play we are seeing from him.
James Harrison is another name that is often brought up when discussing some of the greatest defenders of the last generation. From undrafted free agent linebacker, cut from two different teams to perhaps one of the best 3-4 outside linebackers of the generation is truly astounding. A former Defensive Player of the Year, Harrison was what it meant to be a Steeler. Tough, hard nosed and great. While Harrison’s play was not nearly as affected by time as Polamalu’s was, he is by no means the player he used to be. From what we all saw on the field in 2014, however, Harrison shocked many. His pass rushing ability and explosiveness off the edge was not what it once was, but he provided stability to a team that lacked talent and depth at the position. He, in my mind, should have been up for comeback player of the year. From retirement in September to playing more than half the season, Harrison’s play in 2014 should be valued by all as it was likely the last time he will play a down of professional football.
This was a defense that relied too heavily on the play of players who were simply too far beyond their prime to be considered true impact players. The lack of pass rush and play from the secondary resulted in defensive woes throughout the season. The explosive plays given up, coupled with the lack of pressure on quarterbacks, was a recipe doomed to fail from the onset. A lot of this can be attributed to the identity the Steelers had on defense — inconsistent play. The play and results on the field eventually led to the dismissal of one of the greatest defensive minds in NFL history.
A LEGEND, GONE
Dick LeBeau is synonymous with ‘great defensive mind’. Perhaps the greatest defensive mind in NFL history. His unit was perhaps the most feared and well-respected defenses in the NFL for a decade. This type of dominance in the salary cap era was unprecedented. The Steelers were essentially penciled in to finish in the top five in yards, points and sacks annually from 2005 – 2010. Often referred to as “Coach Dad” by his players, LeBeau was perhaps the main reason why this team went to three Super Bowls in six years, winning two, spanning the tenures of Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. The defensive greatness that LeBeau had was unrivaled and unmatched in the NFL. Players such as Ike Taylor and James Harrison have said numerous times this was a man they would do anything for, both on and off the field. Referred to at times for being a “players coach”, LeBeau knew how to get the most out of his players.
Then, 2012 happened.
The defensive stalwarts began to age and the wear and tear took its toll on their bodies. The players that made this defense so good and so consistent began to show signs of being on the decline. The chunk yardage and big plays began to pile up, and this was no longer a defense that was a feared unit. No longer a unit that was well respected. This was a unit that offenses began to pick on, exposing a depleted secondary in both talent and depth, and threw the ball at will. A defense that once prided itself on having the bending, not breaking attitude was consistently being broken on the back end of the defense. Fast forward to this season and it was much of the same story. The consistent lack of pressure on the quarterback coupled with inconsistent and poor play in the secondary led to explosive plays against the defense. Once again, this team was plagued with a lack of turnovers and inability to get off the field on third down, resulting in points or forcing the offense to drive down the length of the field to score. It was a far cry from where this team once was defensively.
While not all of this falls on Dick LeBeau, some of it absolutely does. The scheme no longer matched the players that composed the defense. Jarvis Jones, Jason Worilds, Lawrence Timmons and Vince Williams are not players that can be used the same way James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, James Farrior and Larry Foote were being used. The linebackers have voiced their concerns about being dropped back in coverage too often and this resulted in a lack of pressure on the quarterback. Until his injury, Brett Keisel was a starting defensive end on the roster. His ability to generate pressure at the snap had all but diminished, and guards and tackles (depending on the defensive look) had no trouble riding him to the outside and allowing a clean pocket for their quarterback. This happened far too often in 2014. The lack of talent at edge rusher and cornerback contributed to this without question, but the scheme did not play to their strengths. Putting Worilds back in coverage while having Keisel rush off the edge isn’t a recipe that is going to succeed.
Ultimately, the players played hard for him for the better part of a decade. He was one of the greatest defensive minds in NFL history and coordinated and coached some of the best defensive players of the generation. That said, it was time to pass the torch. Keith Butler’s contract was going to expire at season’s end and instead of allowing him to walk away to another team and forcing the Steelers to look outside for a coordinator, they mutually parted ways with LeBeau to allow Butler to take over the coordinator job. Many in the NFL media saw it as a sudden departure, but the writing had been on the wall for over two seasons now. It was time for a change in Pittsburgh, and not only at coordinator.
YOUNG BUCKS MUST STEP UP
The culture of change isn’t only at defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh. This team is likely to see sweeping changes on the field as well. Likely gone are Ike Taylor, Brett Keisel, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu. The names that made this defense great for so long are going to ride off into the sunset, replaced by Cortez Allen, Stephon Tuitt, Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas.
It is now time for those who the Steelers have invested much in to step up and take over this team defensively. If there are two players on this team that are going to be the keys to success on defense in 2015, they are Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones. Shazier has shown flashes of brilliance when on the field. An injury plagued season hurt his development, but when given time on the field, Shazier was around the football. His speed and athleticism is rare for someone his size and at the position. His sideline to sideline ability is eye opening, and this defense is going to need it in 2015. The Steelers are keen on running a hybrid scheme next season and Shazier is going to have to play a key role in doing so.
Jarvis Jones has been the brunt of criticism for many Steelers fans since he was drafted. While some of it is justified, most of it is due to lack of patience of a developing prospect. The same issues that Jones had at Georgia he is still currently facing at the NFL level. The lack of pass rushing technique, combined with his poor habit of relying too heavily on his athletic ability to beat NFL level tackles, has resulted in poor production from Jones. Though he showed improvement early in the season, Jones needs to continue to develop his technique and improve his hand use, as well as develop a counter against tackles. Many have been critical of Jones’ size and strength, and while he does need to add muscle and improve on his size, this pales in comparison to the need to develop his technique. I do expect big things from Jones in the 2015 season.
THAT SAID… IT’S NOT ALL BAD
I’ve been critical of the defense in the past and in this article. I am, however, pleased with the 2014 season the Steelers had. While it is always disappointing to lose to a divisional rival in the playoffs, the season overall can only be deemed as a success. In the City of Champions, the Steelers have the unrealistic expectation of winning the Lombardi trophy every season. When stepping back and taking a look at this season, winning the division in a year that can only realistically be called a rebuilding of the defense is extremely successful. The arrow is pointing up for Pittsburgh in 2015 and this is a team that is going to accomplish great things for years to come.
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