Taking a Shot at the Steelers’ Defense

Carnell Lake, in a less kind and caring era

Partway through the Steelers’ 2015 training camp tantalizing hints began trickling out about a drill called “seven shots.” This is something head coach Mike Tomlin instituted with the idea of honing a selection of goal line plays, both to help increase the Steelers’ red zone percentage and to use in two-point conversion attempts.

But Tomlin didn’t put it in just for the sake of the offense. On the second day of training camp Mike Prisuta reported that two of the seven shots resulted in interceptions, one for Cortez Allen and one for Doran Grant. Nor did the drill disappear after the close of training camp.

In mid-November the subject arose again when steelers.com reporter Teresa Varley questioned veteran safety Will Allen:

[Seven shots is] a drill you can hate, or one you can love. For Steelers players it’s the latter, because it makes them better.

The offense throws everything at the defense, the full arsenal of weapons, and it’s a challenge, a huge challenge. But it pays off in the end, and is part of why defensive players feel they have had success in the red zone this year.

“I [attribute] it all to seven shots,” said safety Will Allen. “That’s our competitive advantage offensively and defensively. It’s a situation that happens throughout the year, on a consistent level. The coaches put us in the hardest position possible. It’s

something that we use. I enjoy it, everybody enjoys it in practice, but everybody wants to win…

You see the most obscure situations from our offense. You see the hardest routes against man coverage, you see the hardest routes against zone coverage. You see the hardest routes and combinations against every coverage you can think of. You say ‘I didn’t know they could do that, I didn’t know this was going to happen.’ It prepares us for the looks, prepares us for what possibly is going to happen.

Coach Tomlin emphasizes situational ball all of the time. That is his deal. That is his big thing, situations after a turnover, after anybody comes in red zone, third down, start of a series, all of these situations that are key moments in a game. He is a stickler for those. He prepares his team that way so it helps us.”

As a person who has to run “practices” (I’m a choral director in real life) I found this very interesting. Unless you have an infinite amount of practice time there are always going to be decisions to be made about where to best spend the limited time you have.

And while I may dream about having a training camp, organized team activities, and full time singers who practice almost every day, the reality is, I have about the same amount of time to prepare my singers for a concert as Mike Tomlin has to prepare them for a game.

It didn’t used to be this way for the Steelers. There was a halcyon time when the league was generating enough money to pay the players to work (or at least work out) full time, but before the health and safety initiatives of the 2011 collective bargaining agreement strictly limited the number and types of practices.

And these not only affect training camps (no more two-a-days— this was replaced by a single full-contact padded practice and a walk-through period) but the regular season, where full-contact padded practices are limited to a total of 14 during the regular season.

As Carnell Lake said when asked about the difference between training camp now and under Chuck Noll:

When I look back at my training camp, especially my rookie year, and the current training camps the players attend as it relates to intensity and the physical side, the conditioning and contact has changed a lot. Back then it was pads twice a day from day one. It was contact. After practice it was conditioning. Under Chuck Noll we ran several 350s. You don’t see that any more. At times you get full pads and at times full contact, but that is very rare.

Former Steelers linebacker Craig Bingham was interviewed about the differences between a Chuck Noll training camp and today’s camp, and he described the current schedule as “the lap of luxury.”

It is easy to see how these changes would require considerable adjustment in how coaches plan and pace a practice. As NFL analyst Bucky Brooks said back in 2011:

For teams like the Steelers, Ravens and Jets, these changes threaten to change their identities as teams built on physicality and aggressiveness. The loss of full-contact practices could rob them of the edginess that allows them to bully opponents.

Coaches are having difficulty melding their long-held philosophies with the league’s new approach. Proponents of hard-hitting football cultivated by rugged practices are upset with the mandated scaled-back approach. They assert the lack of contact will leave their squads unprepared for the intensity and physicality of the game.

Brooks predicted tackling would suffer as teams were unable to “replicate the tempo, aggressiveness and angle discipline needed.”

He also felt both the running and passing game would be impaired because the needed fortitude “is only developed in pads.”

Of course, every team is impacted in the same way, although as he noted teams more dependent upon a physical style of play would perhaps find it more challenging. It almost makes you wonder whether the Steelers’ transition into an offense-dependent team is a deliberate philosophical change, rather than merely something which happened by chance because of the relatively simultaneous aging of the amazing defensive core of the Super Bowl teams of the 2000s.

What I see in “seven shots” is one of the ways Tomlin is dealing with the limitations imposed on practices by the CBA. As a side benefit, it allows the offensive coordinator to experiment with bizarre and creative formations, much like Hue Jackson has done in Cincinnati.

Of course, you have to have the horses to run this, and when Ben and a minimum number of capable receivers are healthy, they have this in spades.

The more I think about the difficulties under which Mike Tomlin has labored during what might be viewed as the “rebuilding” years of 2011 – 2015, the more impressed I am that he managed to weather a complete sea change in the time allocation for practices, the aging and consequent reduction in effectiveness of his core defensive players, and a major set of rule changes and/ or enforcement which particularly penalized Steeler-style football. All this while never having a losing season.

I suspect there are those who will argue it would have been less painful in the long run to tank, gut the team, and start almost from scratch, but given the preciousness of a franchise quarterback and the ticking clock on the one we have, who can blame Tomlin and the Steelers brain trust for attempting to adjust and rebuild and still keep open the possibility of a playoff run each year? Not I.

We can thank our lucky stars the Rooneys took a chance on an unknown quantity when replacing Bill Cowher. Tomlin hasn’t been perfect, and he hasn’t always had the best of luck in terms of the timing and severity of the injuries to the team, but perhaps this season it will all prove to be worth the wait. It’s been quite a ride, anyhow!

One comment

  • Rebecca, excellent analysis (as ALWAYS). There’s one point of yours I want to expand upon. You observed:

    I suspect there are those who will argue it would have been less painful in the long run to tank, gut the team, and start almost from scratch, but given the preciousness of a franchise quarterback and the ticking clock on the one we have, who can blame Tomlin and the Steelers brain trust for attempting to adjust and rebuild and still keep open the possibility of a playoff run each year? Not I.

    Over the last two years, this view has been quite popular in Steelers Nation. A credentialed journalist with a major publication, someone whom I rexpect, once made the same point to me in private during the 0-4 start in 2013.

    I don’t remember how many times during the 2014 season and then again following the playoff loss, I had the example of Andrew Luck and the Colts rapid-rags-to-riches turn around.

    I get it. The Colts pulled it off, or so it seems. But people forget how incredibly lucky the Colts were with Andrew Luck (no pun intended.)

    Replacing a franchise quarterback with another franchise quarterback is akin to pulling off the Jerry Seinfeld “Roomate switch.” Its possible, but incredibly difficult.

    The 49ers did it with Joe Montana and Steve Young, but that was only possible because there was no salary cap and no free agency to allow Young to depart elsewhere in the late 80’s when his greatness was apparent.

    The Packers did it with Favre and Rogers — good for them. And now the Colts have done with Manning and Luck….

    …How many more examples are out there in NFL history?

    Perhaps a few.

    But the Cowboys are waiting for their next Aikman. The Dolphins for their next Marino. The Broncos waited how long between Elway and Manning?

    I’ve had separate conversations with two Cowboys fans this season, both of whom have said, “Now we need to lose out, to get a better draft pick.”

    Again, I GET IT. The logic’s plain. And you can even see that Colbert-Tomlin (and perhaps Colbert-Cowher) do seem to draft better after 8-8 and 9-7 seasons.

    But my stock response is to point to the Steelers 1968 campaign. Bill Austin went 2-11-1. A lot of people lambasted the franchise, saying “they don’t even know how to lose right.”

    The logic was that by winning a couple of games and tying another at mid season, Bill Austin had been dumb enough to cost the franchise the first pick in the draft, thereby preventing them from drafting O.J. Simpson….

    …Which it did.

    And as a consequence, Chuck Noll and Steelers Nation had to settle for Joe Greene.


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