A Blast from the Past: More Questions We Were Debating Back in the Day

 

steelers.com

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 seriesI 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.

DEFENSE COMP. 02 11 15

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.

Cold_Old_Steelers_Fan:

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.

motownsteeler:

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.

barnerburner:

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:

2002 secondary

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…

11 comments

  • Coaches Tomlin and Butler consciously sacrificed passing yardage to get more pressure on the QB and tougher against the run. Considering our finish and the overall success of a very inexperienced defense, that was the way to go in 2015.

    Unless the 2016 version of the secondary is more capable of playing tighter coverage, we should stick with the plan. Golson, Grant and any others acquired may play better than the 2015 DB, but it will be a process, not a transformation. Pressure has a way of disrupting offenses and creating turnovers which evens out the yardage surrendered as a result of playing off.

    Liked by 1 person

    • +1. I just don’t see the Steelers being able to acquire the necessary guys in one draft/free agency period under the circumstances (late round picks, and not a lot of trade fodder, still having cap issues…)

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  • Thanks to Hombre for pointing out I had the 2002 Steelers losing to the wrong T-team. Corrected above : )

    Liked by 1 person

  • The age old saying goes that a dominant front 7 can mask any deficiencies in the back end, but I think that’s actually a little bit outdated. The simple fact is the rules are too favourable and the quarterbacks are too good; a spread system
    with a talented roster will shred any pressure based defense in today’s NFL.

    Tom Brady is the prime example. Even in the Steelers heyday, Brady would carve up the Blitzburgh D, as he would countless other great pass rush defenses, simply by getting the ball out of his hands in less than two seconds. Five years ago it was quick outs and seam passes to Hernandez and Gronkwoski, today it’s crossers to Amendola/Edelman and swing passes to Dion Lewis.

    Even looking at the evolution of Big Ben, he has become the consummate spread passer because he has complete mastery of his offense. When healthy, he’s shut down any of the defense’s he’s faced simply by spreading them out and getting rid of the ball before the rush can get there.

    In recent history the only teams that have managed to throw Brady off his game are the Rex Ryan Jets, the Seahawks and, most recently, the Denver Broncos. The reason why isn’t principally because they had stud pass rushers, it’s because they had smothering coverage. In every instance they had the personnel in the secondary to go man-on-man, be it blitz or straight 4-man rush, and negate the advantages of the spread offense, taking away away the quick rhythm passes.

    This is just a long way of saying give me an elite cover secondary over an elite pass rush any day.

    The Steelers obviously don’t have that, they won’t come close to having that ability next season barring a stunning free agent move/rookie performance/Senquez Golson balling out. If anything, it’s more likely the secondary regresses next season without (potentially) Will Gay and Will Allen. That will leave the fortunes of the team in the mercy of the defenses dire need to create to turnovers at any costs. Not a great proposition, but one they’ll need to live with simply because they don’t have the guys for anything else.

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  • You do have to consider the fact we had a new defensive scheme this year, though similar to Lebeau’s. The secondary looked lost for the entirety of the preseason and the first game against the pats. They have shown insane improvement over the course of the year, but I think just got worn down by the end of the season. Another year under Butler’s defense should only improve the team.

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  • Because of the personal changes, the coaching change and the youth of many of the defenders, I expected the Steelers defence to be a work in progress that would improve as the season progressed, which they did to a level that exceeded my wildest hopes. By the end of the season it was obvious the defence is still missing a few pieces, mostly in terms of depth. If James can stave off old age one more season and the young lbs can keep improving,

    I think we are back-up DE/DT , a CB (or two) and a safety away from a dominating defence (assuming we can resign Gay). The CB doesn’t have to be Revis. The DL may come in the draft as may the safety. I suspect we will be hitting the bargain bins to patch up the secondary while last year’s draft picks learn their trade.

    The usually caveat about injuries applies but I think the 2016 defence will not be a liability. At times it will be quite good and it may well win a few games along the way.

    In a final note, I do wish I could remember more about what I was thinking in 2011 when I made that statement.

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  • The stat that counts is ‘points allowed’. I don’t care how many yards are given up…if it doesn’t translate to points, then I’m quite happy with it.

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    • True, but yards allowed are a direct indicator of the pressure the D’s under. This years defense was ridiculously over reliant on turnovers because they couldn’t stop teams marching down the field. Yeah they were number one in red zone takeaways but you just cannot rely on timely turnovers like that. Ultimately it showed against the Broncos in playoffs. Think the Steelers only won once last seaosn when losing the turnover battle (not 100% sure though)

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