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Kovacevic: Steelers could use line change

Chaz Palla | Tribune Review
The Steelers Cameron Heyward plays against the Broncos at Sports Authority at Mile High Sept. 2012.

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By Dejan Kovacevic
Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012, 11:08 p.m.
 

Maybe the worst way to evaluate any 3-4 defense is to cite the statistics of the three down linemen. Their primary job is to block the blockers, to clear lanes for the linebackers. Counting up the sacks and hurries of the big men up front is terribly unfair.

So, hey, let's start there.

We'll get to fair and rational evaluation in a bit. I promise.

In the Steelers' 34-31 loss 10 days ago at Oakland, Ziggy Hood lined up for 53 snaps at defensive end. On exactly 52 of those, he failed to get within radar range of the Raiders' stationary target of a QB, Carson Palmer.

No sacks, no hits and one official "hurry," according to film study done by the Steelers' coaches.

That wouldn't be a big deal if isolated, but no one else got to Palmer, either. The Steelers had one sack by LaMarr Woodley and nine hurries on Oakland's 35 passing plays. Brett Keisel and Larry Foote had three hurries each, Chris Carter one.

The three-game total of 21 hurries puts the Steelers on pace to finish the season with 112. They had 141 last year, 169 the previous year.

No matter how you slice up the roles, that's terrible.

And it had better change soon.

The Eagles, next up Sunday in what could easily be called a lose-this-one-and-forget it game, will bring as much individual playmaking skill as the first three opponents combined. Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy can bust up the best strategies and execution.

Especially Vick, the NFL's all-time leading rusher among QBs.

As Mike Tomlin put it Tuesday in his weekly lavishing of the opponent: “If we're going to have success this game, we're going to have to minimize what he does to us. We have to contain Vick, by design or otherwise, so he cannot get on the perimeter and in space to create plays.”

Can't argue that.

Can't argue, either, that it all starts up front.

We fuss over blown coverage or missed tackles in the secondary — hey, let's blame Ryan Mundy, a safety, for whiffing on Darren McFadden's 64-yard touchdown run — but the hard truth for the Steelers is this: In these three games, the starting defensive line of Hood, Keisel and nose tackle Casey Hampton has produced zero sacks, six hurries and zero tackles for losses.

That last figure isn't limited to QBs. It's for anyone carrying a football.

What's the problem?

Debating the predictability of Dick LeBeau's schemes, no matter how valid, is pointless. There won't be a change, certainly not to the base 3-4 philosophy.

But why not at least to the usage of players?

Defensive line might be the deepest position on the roster other than wide receiver, but it doesn't matter if Tomlin and LeBeau don't take advantage.

Check out the season snap counts to date:

Hood: 152

Keisel: 134

Hampton: 77

Cam Heyward: 38

Steve McLendon: 31

Al Woods: 11

Notice anything amiss?

I sure do.

Heyward, in addition to having the only sack of the group, has a good chance of fulfilling his first-round potential. Maybe more so than Hood. He does get caught out of position — not uncommon for a second-year player — but he also exhibits exceptional physical tools.

In Oakland, he was on the line for five snaps.

Why?

And what of McLendon?

Every summer, someone reports to Latrobe with above-and-beyond improvement. This year, that was McLendon by a knockout. He was plugging the middle in Hampton's mold but also blowing through offensive lines, and, you know, making things happen.

He was on the line for three snaps in Oakland. The long snapper was busier.

Again, why?

This isn't to suggest Hood is a bust or that Hampton, 35, and Keisel, 34, are ready to join Aaron Smith in civvies. Hampton, in particular, has been better at filling his lanes than most seem to appreciate. But there is ample help at hand, and all concerned could perform with a lot more bite if kept fresh.

I could tell from talks this week with Heyward and McLendon that both have healthy attitudes.

“We just have to be ready,” Heyward said. “We've got three of the best linemen around in front of us. We just want the result of winning. Steve and I aren't concerned about playing time. We're not selfish guys.”

And McLendon, the preseason sensation?

“Preseason's just the preseason,” he said with a playful shrug. “Right now, all I'm here to do is be ready. I'm not going to worry that I'm not playing as much as I want. I have to be patient. My time will come.”

Here's one vote for that time coming in the range of, oh, 1 p.m. Sunday.

 

 
 


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