Questions abound for Steelers defense that declined dramatically
Reasons abound for the Steelers' absence from the playoffs for a second consecutive year and with the same record as a season ago.
An 0-4 start. A lack of a running game for nearly half a season. An inability to win games they knew they should win — against Oakland and Minnesota, Tennessee and Miami.
But the primary reason might be that their defense, which has been the NFL's best since Dick LeBeau began his second run as defensive coordinator in 2004, didn't resemble any of the other 11 units LeBeau fielded in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers weren't the Steelers.
A defense that has allowed 3,000 fewer yards than any other in the league since 2004 couldn't stop big plays, get to the quarterback or regularly stop the run.
Unlike the Steelers offense, which was the NFL's seventh worst during the first half of the season but the sixth best during the second half, the defense wasn't much different. The Steelers (8-8) were 21st defensively during the first half, 20th during the second.
The defense ranked 13th overall after being No. 1 each of the previous two seasons and four times during the previous six seasons. That ranking was by far the worst under LeBeau, who had only one defense ranked lower than fifth during his previous 11 seasons on the job. His defenses led the league five times and were second twice.
“Our problem was that we didn't start very good,” LeBeau said. “You've got to get out of the gate with that and continue through the year.”
The Steelers started out giving up big plays, including eight plays of 50 yards or more in the first eight games. The defense allowed 11 such plays on the season compared to two in 2012 and one in '11.
One reason for all those big plays was an inability to pressure the quarterback. Their 34 sacks were the franchise's fewest since 1989. Less pressure meant more completed passes. The defense was ninth against the pass, allowing 221.6 yards per game, after being No. 1 each of the previous two seasons.
“Sacks? We've got to get more pressure on the quarterbacks (next season),” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “Some of it is all the quicker balls. (Quarterbacks) aren't going to let the ball stay in their hands long. But when we get opportunities to get them, we've got to get them.”
That dropoff wasn't nearly as precipitous as the falloff in defending the run, previously the one constant of LeBeau's defenses. The Steelers were Nos. 1, 2 or 3 against the run in 10 of his previous 11 seasons. This season they were 21st, giving up 115.6 yards per game, or 25 yards per game more than last season.
No other LeBeau defense allowed an average of even 100 yards per game. The 2010 defense permitted only 62.8 yards per game.
Some players blamed the absence of run-stuffer supreme Casey Hampton in the middle. Others said the injury-related loss of inside linebacker and play-caller Larry Foote in the season opener hurt badly.
But Hampton's successor, Steve McLendon, graded out better this season in Pro Football Focus' evaluations than Hampton did last season, and McLendon was the highest-rated Steelers defender against the run.
“We could have thrown in the towel. We could have said, 'We're going to get that (No. 1 pick),' but guys came to work every day with the mindset that we had to get better,” said Heyward, who believes the defense performed better than its rankings. “I thought we were really clicking toward the end of the season.”
So what exactly went wrong?
Age looked to be a factor. Safety Ryan Clark, at 34, and cornerback Ike Taylor, at 33, both ranked among the worst players at their positions after being in a high-ranked tier last season.
According to Pro Football Focus, Clark ranked 45th among safeties after being ninth last season. Taylor gave up 1,043 yards while in coverage compared to 445 last season — with most of that 2012 yardage coming in two games.
Defensive end Ziggy Hood struggled as a pass rusher. Vince Williams, a sixth-round pick, played nearly half the snaps. Normally, such a low-round pick would have played little, if any. Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (calf injury) played few snaps in the second half after having five sacks in the first six games.
Outside linebacker Jason Worilds (eight sacks) and Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu (five forced fumbles) had strong seasons, but cornerback Cortez Allen struggled much of the season, and rookie outside linebacker Jarvis Jones — expected to energize the pass rush — had one sack.
“Everybody expected me to have 10, 12 sacks, and I didn't do that,” Jones said. “At the same time, it's motivation for me. Now I've got a lot of work to do.”
So what do the Steelers need to do to get better? They likely will draft help at cornerback, safety, linebacker and defensive end. They also must decide if they can afford to bring back Polamalu and Taylor, both of whom count more than $10 million against the salary cap next season.
NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said there are myriad other questions the Steelers must answer on a suddenly suspect defense.
“They've been drafting a lot of guys over the last few years,” Baldinger said. “Is Shamarko Thomas ready to step in and take one of those safety positions. Is Cortez Allen ready to step in and start for Ike Taylor? Is Jarvis Jones ready to step in and take one of the outside linebacker positions? Does Woodley come back?
“Is (defensive end) Brett Keisel done? Is Steve McLendon the guy at nose tackle? It doesn't look like it to me. ... Can they really get younger and more athletic and better?”
Baldinger thinks Polamalu will return, even if it takes a reworked contract.
“To me, he is the Steelers,” Baldinger said. “He gives them the identity that they desperately want to hold on to. I don't think he's the player he was five years ago, but Ray Lewis and Ed Reed (formerly of the Baltimore Ravens) weren't at the end, and it paid off staying with those guys.”
There's also one more unanswered question: Does LeBeau return at age 77? He wants to, but coach Mike Tomlin declined Monday to address the status of any of his coaches.
Foote thinks — and hopes — he will.
“I don't think he wants to go out this way,” Foote said.