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.