Coordinator LeBeau sees shift in Steelers' defensive strategies
Dick LeBeau is making official what has been evident since the first day of offseason workouts. Ryan Shazier will be the first rookie to start in his defense since LeBeau returned to the Steelers in 2004.
“He's going to start. Yeah, he's going to start,” LeBeau said. “Whether that was the situation or not (Shazier being a first rounder), he was going to start in the NFL. … We'll try not to overload him, but he's going to start, no question about it.”
But even as LeBeau officially proclaimed Shazier as a starter, he said that starting roles, positions and even basic formations are becoming blurred as the Steelers and the rest of the NFL try to keep up with the greatest offensive revelation in a generation.
Before, rookies simply found the leap from college ball to the Steelers' sophisticated defense too much to master in a few months. Now, not only will Shazier start at inside linebacker, second-round pick Stephon Tuitt could start at left defensive end.
“He's definitely going to get a significant amount of playing time,” LeBeau said. “He's shown us a lot of athleticism for a big guy, and he's in great shape. He can run all day.”
That's the key for any NFL defense today — being able to run, and run some more, and play fast at the same time offenses are reducing their dependency on the running game.
For the first time in NFL history, teams are expected to average 700 yards per game this season — last year, it was 697. That's an increase of more than 40 yards per game in just a few years, and LeBeau knows why.
“The game is in a constant state of change, and it's evolving into a wide-open, run-and-shoot, option type of thing,” LeBeau said. “(Offenses) are going to use different personnel packages, and you have to match up.”
Watch a Steelers' Super Bowl tape from the 1970s, and the same Hall of Fame defenders stay on the field play after play. But, today, keeping the same 11 for more than one play is as antiquated as the drop kick.
On the first day of camp, LeBeau told his defense that every player in the meeting room at the start of the season likely will start a game — and that player should consider himself a starter.
“I think that every team in today's NFL plays younger players earlier than they used to,” LeBeau said.
The defining line of whether a defense plays a 3-4 or a 4-3 also is blurred. With all offenses regularly employing extra wide receivers and tight ends in what not long ago were considered gimmick formations, sub packages — as coach Mike Tomlin said — are becoming the base defense.
“Back in early 1960s, it was 62 percent running and 38 percent passing,” LeBeau said. “Now it's just the opposite.”
For any defense, getting fast defenders on the field is paramount. Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan told the Wall Street Journal he plans to play his 11 best players, regardless of position — including three safeties because they're fast enough to cover receivers and strong enough to defend the run.
“We do that against the big, bulked-up running teams because your safeties usually are the bigger, stronger guys,” LeBeau said. “We have a defense that's called ‘3 Safeties.' But usually we're looking to match up against their speed, and that means extra corners.”
All of this interchangeability means Shazier and Arthur Moats are playing outside and inside. Jarvis Jones moves inside on some plays. Shamarko Thomas might play in any formation.
At the same time, LeBeau intends to get back to playing Troy Polamalu primarily in the secondary. According to Pro Football Focus, Polamalu was one of only two NFL safeties — Kenny Vaccaro of Ryan's defense was the other — to play more than 70 percent of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage in 2013.
“I'd rather have him back there rolling around and then come up to the line sometimes,” LeBeau said.
On a Steelers defense that likely will resemble none before it, seeing Polamalu mostly in pass coverage again might be the only return to the past.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Rossi: Wild Wednesday proves Steelers rule
- Steelers submit application to play host to Super Bowl in 2023
- Australians rule punting competition for chance to play for Steelers
- Steelers notebook: Best RB tandem in NFL?
- Steelers running back Bell is taking long-term look at his NFL career
- Steelers CB Allen working to regain form, make an impact
- Steelers wide receiver Wheaton embraces move to slot position
- Offseason training helping to accelerate adjustment to NFL life
- Rossi: Moats looks to make a splash with Steelers
- Steelers to honor Bettis with ring ceremony in October
- Steelers notebook: Line coach wants strong run defense