Steelers defense concentrating on improving communication
The Steelers won't blame their defensive dip last season on a failure to communicate, but that hasn't stopped Mike Tomlin from imploring them to listen while learning this offseason.
Or, more appropriately, learning to listen.
"That's one thing that coach Tomlin talked to us about," said inside linebacker James Farrior, who took the brunt of blame for the problem because he handles the defensive calls signaled from the sideline. "Listening is a skill, something you've got focus in on and learn how to do."
Miscommunication was a major culprit last season when the Steelers blew five fourth-quarter leads, including cushions against the lowly Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders. It's something the Steelers said was addressed — but not stressed — during voluntary workouts, which ended two weeks ago.
"Bad communication, that's all it was," cornerback Ike Taylor said. "That's what happens. When you don't communicate one down, it's a play gone bad. For an offense, they can scramble and fix that. For a defense, when you don't communicate, you don't know what's going to happen: somebody might go in the wrong gap, somebody in the secondary might go on the wrong call or the wrong read.
"A busted play; there goes seven points."
The mix-ups caused blown coverage against the Chiefs and Raiders, when Kansas City's Chris Chambers beat Taylor for a 61-yard play to set up Ryan Succop's game-winning field goal in overtime, and a botched blitz left Oakland's Louis Murphy all alone for the game-winning touchdown catch with 9 seconds remaining.
Both plays followed a dropped interception and, at the time, the Steelers said the ensuing calls from the sideline came to the huddle slow and caused confusion.
"It was a source of frustration," free safety Ryan Clark said. "I don't know that anybody made more mental errors than ever, just at more critical moments. ... We run these plays a thousand times. It's not like you don't know the play or the call. It's a matter of making it in the moment. It's different when it's fourth-and-5, with 20 seconds left and a team is in the no-huddle.
"Right now, there's no pressure."
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau isn't dwelling on the breakdowns — which he said wasn't "an inordinate amount" — but was disappointed by the slip from status as the NFL's top defense to No. 5. LeBeau asserted that all of the situational calls could be addressed during voluntary workouts.
"We can work on a lot of special areas of football and we can to a certain extent, create third-and-short, we can recreate third-and-long, we can create backed up, we can create short yardage, we can create red zone," LeBeau said. "Absolutely, it's something we work on. We think the work we get in those areas of the game are very, very important to us at this time of year."
The Steelers also didn't appear too worried that strong safety Troy Polamalu was injured much of last season and skipped the majority of voluntary workouts, when the communication issues could have been resolved.
"Troy doesn't talk, anyway, so we're not really missing a lot with Troy not out here," Farrior said in late May. "He does what he wants to do."
Polamalu also downplayed the importance of his involvement, as he and defensive end Aaron Smith did not play in the games with destructive breakdowns. And Polamalu was quick to note that the secondary wasn't strictly to blame for the issue.
"The whole defense has to communicate," Polamalu said. "That's what's really good about this defense - whether people may be aging or not, that's a formula that we have, that we have trust. We don't need a big all-star in a certain position to hold down the defense."
What Tomlin wants to see this season is a sense of being "sound and clean," something he isn't limiting to the defense. The Steelers coach made it clear he is committed to moving forward.
"I'm not concerned about the miscommunications and things that happened in the past," Tomlin said. "It's about being on the details so that we can be a solid unit in 2010. That'll always guide our decision-making and actions.
"I like the way the guys have communicated at this juncture. We don't have a play clock, so the urgency-things are not as significant at this time of year. We'll turn the volume up on that a little bit as we get into training camp and, of course, the preseason will add a significant element of that puzzle."