Has Steelers' defense become too predictable?
Seattle had the ball at its 30-yard line early in the third quarter of last year's home opener, and Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau dialed up one of his patented crossfire blitzes.
Inside linebacker James Farrior crossed in front of Lawrence Timmons while both rushed up the middle, confusing quarterback Tarvaris Jackson's personal protector, Marshawn Lynch, and leading to a sack.
Fast-forward to the second play of this season's opening game in Denver. Deep in Broncos territory, LeBeau calls the same blitz, sending Timmons and Larry Foote after Peyton Manning. Timmons tipped his intentions a split-second early, allowing Manning to know there would be zone coverage. Manning hit Eric Decker for a 13-yard gain in the zone's soft spot.
Same scheme. Same defensive coordinator. Same blitz call. Different result.
Following an uncharacteristically bad start this season for the Steelers' defense, the 75-year-old LeBeau — a Hall of Famer — is being criticized for becoming too predictable with a once cutting-edge defense.
Oakland receiver Derek Hagan said after a 34-31 win last week that the Raiders knew how the Steelers would attack certain plays. Denver's Brandon Stokley stated a similar stance two weeks earlier after host Denver's 31-19 victory.
“It doesn't matter if you know what we are doing,” safety Ryan Clark said, “if you can't stop it.”
But what happens when teams do stop it? A defense that has been so good in the past eight years — it finished as the NFL's best unit in yards per game four times — starts to be called predictable.
“We haven't changed here since I've been here,” safety Troy Polamalu said. “You can throw on film from Carnell Lake and Rod Woodson and Darren Perry and substitute numbers in, and it is the same exact defense.”
While LeBeau's zone-blitz scheme is basically the same defense he developed in the 1980s with Cincinnati and the one that gained fame during his first stint with the Steelers in the mid-1990s, it's never been described as predictable.
“Really, there are only so many defenses that you can call,” said former NFL safety Darren Sharper, now an analyst for NFL Network. “What they are running now is what they ran when I was in the league. They have never done anything exotic to where you were confused.
“(But) I definitely don't agree that they are predictable because that's not the case.”
LeBeau's defense is ranked seventh in the league but has had shortcomings in its two losses. Compared to its first three games last season, the defensive difference has been alarming:
• Opponents are converting 48 percent of third downs this season compared to 36 percent last season.
• The Steelers have hit or pressured opposing quarterbacks 21 times versus 28 times last season.
• They have 10 passes defensed compared to 15 last year.
• The defense has allowed 75 points this season versus 55 points last season.
All of that has contributed to second-half collapses in the Steelers' losses during which the team failed to prevent an opponent from scoring after halftime.
“I always look at myself first, and I hope (the players) do, too,” LeBeau said. “When things aren't the way that you want them to be, something's got to be done differently.”
Former Steelers safety Mike Logan played under LeBeau from 2004-06 and admitted that the scheme never changed, but the calls within the scheme changed significantly week to week and even quarter to quarter.
“I remember during a second half of a game that Coach LeBeau pulled out a dry erase board on the sidelines and drew up different pressures,” Logan said. “He was always changing things during the game. But you have to have the personnel to do that.”
With former NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison and his 58 career sacks yet to play, and Polamalu missing the past two games, LeBeau's personnel isn't what it once was.
“I think that is the major factor of why this defense hasn't played to the level that it has in the past,” Sharper said. “In the past, they just executed their defense exceptionally well. They had guys who were better than they were going against.”
Along with Harrison and Polamalu being out, the Steelers' defense lost three other starters from last year: Farrior, Aaron Smith and William Gay.
“There is all this talk about us being old,” Clark said. “It is not the old guys, you know … we have to infuse the young talent, and we all have to work together well. What you lose is chemistry when guys go out. We have to learn to fit together properly.”
LeBeau explained it a little more matter-of-factly.
“I've got to give them things that they can execute,” he said. “We've got to trust each other and trust the defense, and the results will come.”
Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.