A Blast from the Past: More Questions We Were Debating Back in the Day
I hope you are all enjoying these, because you’re going to see a lot of them until actual current football stuff starts happening. And by “current football stuff” I even mean the Combine and the draft, which shows how desperate I am.
As I explained in the first post in this series, I asked Hombre de Acero for permission to re-pose, if you will, questions from his Burning Questions of the distant past.
He was initially skeptical, as he has always attempted to keep the questions very topical. But I think today’s question will illustrate just why I thought this will be an instructive thing to do.
The questions from which I drew this post were actually posed by Michael Bean, the founder of Behind the Steel Curtain. (Hombre had a few subs the first year, but none more exalted than Michael.) It is from October 6th, 2011, shortly after the Steelers lost, 17-10, to the Houston Texans.
The Texans were 2-1 at that point, and would eventually end up 10-6 and have the honor to be that year’s team to take out the Bengals in the first round of the playoffs. The 2011 Steelers were 12-4 but were snakebitten by untimely injuries, and were eventually Tebowed in the Wild Card round.
The Steelers played without Brett Keisel, who was out with a knee injury, and for much of the game without Rashard Mendenhall, who exited the game with a hamstring injury, and Aaron Smith, who injured his foot. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked five times, and was seen on crutches after the game, as an old foot injury had been re-aggravated.
James Harrison also was out for part of the game, but not enough of it. His orbital bone was broken in a fluke bit of equipment malfunction, as reported at the time on nfl.com:
Harrison sustained the injury during the third quarter of the Steelers’ 17-10 loss to the Houston Texans last week when the forepad in his helmet came down and struck him in the eye as he collided with an opposing player.
Harrison, the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, returned to the game but was ineffective at times as Houston drove the length of the field to score the winning touchdown.
The 33-year-old groused the Steelers (2-2) “stink” afterward but gave no indication of significant damage. Tomlin indicated he won’t know how long Harrison will be out until after the surgery.
Harrison missed four games in the end.
The questions that week ranged from whether Isaac Redman should be starting over Rashard Mendenhall to whether, if you saw Dan Rooney in the elevator again, you would suggest Ben be held out of the Titans game to preserve his health. My favorite of all the comments that week was made in response to the latter by nycsteelerfan:
5. No I am starting BB, he plays better in one giant shoe anyways.
But here’s the question which really caught my attention:
3. The leaky 2002 Steelers secondary forced [defensive coordinator] Tim Lewis [to] de-emphasize pressure in favor of coverage. On paper the defense improved, but it was seen as having been softer. Can we say something similar, four games into 2011, with respect to the “improvement” of the Steelers pass defense?
It just goes to show that, as Stevie Nicks might say, “nothing ever changes.” But this made me curious. I looked up the stats for the 2002, 2011, and 2015 secondary and the overall defensive stats to see if anything did change.
And since I don’t know these things, I looked up the 2002 Steelers in general, and discovered they went 10-5-1 (tied with the Falcons) and were taken out in the second round of the playoffs by none other than the Titans.
Here are the results, with gold highlighting for the best team and black for the worst. Interestingly, the 2002 Steelers was distinctly better than the 2015 version, although they weren’t anything to write home about. And it would appear that with a still-effective Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark, and Troy Polamalu, the 2011 secondary people were complaining about was pretty darn good.
But to return to the question at hand, here are some of the answers given back in 2011:
SteelyDan, formerly madanthonywayne [now, I believe, roxannafirehall]
3. Whatever the reason, we are better. I’d feel better about that if the front seven were playing better.
3) I think the pass defence is better in some ways but I don’t think the lack of pressure is as much about changing passing assignments as a failure on the part of some individuals to perform to the level that they are capable.
3. Heck, no. Back then, they could afford to tweak, whereas the Lebeau system, based on the troika Snack-Deebo-Troy, does not allow for pulling off Troy in favour of a relatively more passive coverage support role for him. We saw what that does in last year’s [gasp] Super Bowl. As much as I’d love us to lengthen Troy’s career by “limiting his pitch count”, no one else has stepped up to take that role over (Timmons definitely won’t now, since he’s covering for 92’s absence). Besides, any discussion of emphasizing coverage with [double gasp] Willie Gay as nickel gives me the creeps. I’m not a Willie hater, but coverage is definitely not his forte. Ya gotta have the horses.
3). Absolutely. Offenses haven’t been attacking our secondary with as much gusto because they’ve been able to effectively run against us. We’ll see how those #1 secondary numbers hold up when we run up against an elite QB that wants to win it himself (Schaub may or may not be elite depending on your criteria, but he didn’t try to win the game with his arm because he didn’t have to).
So, as you look back at the 2015 Steelers, who struggled with the same issues, but with arguably a good bit less talent in the defensive backfield, at least compared to the 2011 team, what’s your solution for next season? Do you live with soft coverage, trusting the guys up front to get sufficient pressure most of the time to not hang the secondary out to dry, or do you try to radically upgrade the secondary, to the possible detriment of other stuff you want to do (like, say, re-sign Steve McLendon, or work towards big contracts for AB and Le’Veon Bell, or whatever?)
Don’t forget to show your work, not forgetting that tall, athletic cornerbacks don’t grow on trees, the Steelers are already a bit over the salary cap, and it’s all very well to pound the table and say “They must do this or that!!!!” but there has to be some chance of it happening in real life…
And by way of a bonus, here is the 2002 secondary, courtesy of Pro Football Reference:
I note that the corners were both first round picks. Looking up their career stats on PFR, the guy drafted by the Vikings appears to have been the better player, and the safeties weren’t notably worse despite their humble origins. In fact, in 2002 they all received essentially the same Approximate Value score from PFR – 7 for all but Chad Scott, the Steelers first-rounder, who received a 6.
So perhaps problems picking defensive backs can’t all be laid at the feet of Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert…