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Steelers' defense trying to narrow gap against high-powered offenses

| Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers' Shamarko Thomas is called for pass interference on the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski in the end zone Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, at Gillette Stadium.

Dick LeBeau talks frequently about going into the lab to find the right formula to blow up high-powered offenses, particularly trendy and fashionable ones using spread and pistol formations during an era when the pass sets up the run.

The Steelers' defensive coordinator has a knack for defusing explosive offenses. It's one reason why his unit has been ranked No. 1 in the NFL in total defense five times the past decade.

Defense keyed the Steelers' resurgence after an 0-4 start. Often criticized for failing to deliver so-called splash plays, the defense forced eight turnovers during a three-game winning streak that was halted Thursday night with a loss to the Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers didn't force a turnover in the defeat.

While the Steelers have had more success than most in stopping complex offenses, LeBeau acknowledged he hasn't devised any complicated schemes to achieve success. Typically, it's more about personnel than X's and O's.

“I don't think all these new offenses are going to change what defenses have to do,” LeBeau said. “We have to identify who's got the ball, where they're throwing and running it. Then get the guy on the ground.

“The game is forever evolving because the new rules are affecting the type of game we're seeing. We're presently trending toward a passing league. So you're going to see more passes, and you better learn how to compete against it, or they're going to continue to throw it all over the place.

“Who you're playing against and the people they're doing it with will be a factor in what you have to do to defend. It'll take forever to catch up with these offenses because it's a non-ending thing. The offense has to evolve, but defense just has to defend.”

Like most teams, the Steelers have some lab time ahead of them.

They were badgered by New England's spread offense in surrendering a franchise-high 55 points in a humiliating defeat. Terrelle Pryor, running an option out of the pistol, set an NFL record for quarterbacks by sprinting for a 93-yard touchdown on the game's first play in a 21-18 Oakland Raiders win.

“It's not about the defenses you play,” Steelers linebacker coach Keith Butler said. “It's about the people you play defenses with. We try to accentuate their talents as much as we can.

“A lot of us coached in college for a long time, and some of the stuff we're seeing is college stuff. The option game requires you to be disciplined in terms of responsibility in the running game. Our guys understand the only way to stop it is to play within the framework of the defense.”

LeBeau and Butler agree that the spread and pistol — like the West Coast offense — influences draft-day strategies. There are now greater demands to scout defensive backs who are familiar with the “college stuff.”

“I think our drafting positions have been softened a little bit by the propensity of college offenses not huddling and spreading to throw the ball all over the place,” said LeBeau, a Hall of Fame defensive back. “It used to be you didn't see a lot of defensive backs who had a lot of experience against passing teams, and now almost everybody in college passes the ball.

“So, it makes it a little easier for us to find defensive backs who can compete and who are used to playing the ball in the air. You used to start from scratch to teach these kids how to defend spread offenses.”

The Steelers have acquired few defensive backs through the draft the past five seasons.

They drafted eight, but only cornerbacks Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown (injured reserve), and safety Shamarko Thomas have been on this season's 53-man roster.

“We draft to fit our needs,” Butler said. “We try to draft the best guy on the board. We were able to get what we wanted.”

However, the defense struggled early mostly because the 24th-ranked rush defense gave up big chunks of yards on first down. Consequently, the secondary was vulnerable and has given up 10 plays that covered more than 50 yards.

“Sometimes you have to be careful about how complicated you get on defense,” Butler said. “You don't want to get into situations where you're trying to be the smartest guy. You can sometimes outsmart each other, and you lose because of mental mistakes.”

The mental mistakes were numerous against the Patriots. Quarterback Tom Brady exploited every blown coverage assignment in passing for 432 yards and four touchdowns.

The Steelers were far better during their three-game win streak, especially the second half of their 37-27 win over Detroit in which they held Calvin Johnson without a catch.

“Coach LeBeau does a good job of striking a balance about how much our guys can handle,” Butler said. “If they can't handle, we cut it out. As coaches we have to have a good feel for the defense as how comfortable they feel about the game plan.”

In beating Detroit and Cleveland, the Steelers appeared far more confident in facing multiple-receiver sets. Neither team uses much spread or pistol, but their best receivers had a field day: Johnson had 179 yards receiving with a 79-yard touchdown, and Josh Gordon set a Cleveland record with 237 receiving yards.

“(Former Steelers coach) Chuck Noll kept it very simple, and he was successful — even against complicated offense,” Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake said. “For the secondary, execution has a lot to do with technique.”

Of the Steelers' four remaining opponents, Cincinnati and Green Bay have top-10 ranked offenses. Miami (5-6), the Packers (5-5-1) and Cleveland (4-7) — ranked 29th, 3rd and 26th respectively in total yards — use traditional pro sets and have quarterbacks who are limited outside the pocket.

“What defenses have to do is keep pressure on the quarterback and keep one guy — like Calvin Johnson — from dominating the game,” LeBeau said. “That's not going to change if they were running the ball 65 percent or throwing it 35 percent. Right now, it seems as if they're throwing it 65 percent of the time because this is a passing league.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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