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Steelers post mortem: Defense

January 18, 2013 - Ray Eckenrode

In reviewing the Steelers 2012 season on the defensive side, let’s get this out of the way quickly: Pittsburgh did NOT have the best defense in the league, they had the defense that gave up the fewest yards. Yardage is not the measure of a great defense, but sacks, turnovers caused, red zone points surrendered and wins are. You know that, right? Certainly, you can watch the defenses of teams like the 49ers and Seahawks and see, literally see, the difference in the speed at which they play the game. All of which isn’t to say the Steelers defense isn’t smart and tough and well-coached. But to look at a stat sheet and say, “We’re the No. 1 defense and everything is just fine,” is not smart (and thankfully, based on GM Kevin Colbert’s Wednesday presser, it doesn’t sound like anyone in the Steelers organization, absent a few of the players, are doing that). Here’s an honest look at the state of the top-ranked defense in the NFL:

Defensive line

Where to start with this mess? How about in the middle, where Casey Hampton (soon to be a free agent) had a decent, not good by any means, but decent year, especially considering his age. The problem here is that his backup, Steve McLendon was the best defensive lineman in camp and made a play every time he stepped on the field during the regular season AND STILL barely played. Baffling. By all accounts, no one worked harder last offseason than Ziggy Hood. No one lifted more weights or added more muscle. No one came into camp in any better shape with any better attitude. Unfortunately, when the whistles blew, Hood still stunk and nothing Phil Simms says can change that. He was consistently blocked off the point of attack and was both outquicked and outmuscled regularly. Cam Heyward was slightly better in reserve but, again, didn’t really see enough action to know for sure. What is sure is that Hood is entering his fourth year and Heyward his third and those are two No. 1 picks in deep jeopardy of being declared busts. On the other side is everyone’s favorite, Brett Kiesel. We all love him. He’s a warrior. He’s got the best beard in sports history. He does (or did) a cool bow-and-arrow celebration. But that colors our view of his play. In 2012, Kiesel was the best regular DLineman for Pittsburgh, but he was still nowhere near his high level of play of just a few years ago. The only possible reason the Steelers kept Alameda Ta’amu around is that they’ve seen enough to believe he can help the team. The late season cherry pick of Loni Fangupo off the Seahawks likely provides enough depth that we might finally see some new faces here in 2013.

2012 grade: C

2013 question: Free Steve?

Linebackers

Based on the lofty expectations set in part by earlier versions of themselves, there’s no other way to classify this unit’s performance in 2012 other than disappointing. James Harrison gave his all on every play, but without full strength in his injured knee he was unable to use his preternatural leverage to wreak havoc. He became just another edge pass rusher. More concerning (because he’s younger) was the play of LaMarr Woodley, who cashed in a big contract in the offseason and showed up out of shape and slow, injured his hamstring and never fully recovered. By the end of the year, Woodley was playing nearly every snap but was totally invisible. We almost want to make a Kendrell Bell comparison here but Woodley produced far more, far longer on the front end of his career to warrant it. Larry Foote was the best of the bunch, never flashy but almost always where he was supposed to be. If the guys around him had played a little better, we’d be raving about what Foote brought back to his old team. Foote is a free agent (again) but we’d guess he’s staying put if the Steelers want him. We think people might have gone a bit overboard in characterizing Lawrence Timmons’ 2012 season because of the position he plays in the defense he plays it in. Don’t get us wrong, Timmons definitely improved over 2011 and definitely made more impact plays (and strung those together into several impact games) than in the past. But there were still long periods where Timmons vanished (although he did, and always will, make a lot of tackles because of where he plays in Pittsburgh’s scheme). He had a good year, but not even Pro Bowl level let alone All Pro. The fifth wheel here is former No. 1 pick Jason Worilds, who did manage five sacks in limited duty, but still shows too many holes in other parts of his game to warrant consideration for anything other than pass rushing specialty packages.

2012 grade: C

2013 question: Where’s Woodley?

Defensive backs

It wasn’t too long ago that we were all saying, “If the Steelers only had a secondary….” But in 2012, it was the secondary that seemed to be the only thing holding the Steelers defense together at times. Ike Taylor played so well the final two months of the season that it’s hard to remember he had a very rocky start and seemed to be still dealing with the psychological fallout of the Debacle in Denver that close out the 2011 season. Keenan Lewis boldly predicted in the preseason that he’d make the Pro Bowl and he certainly played at that level to set up a huge payday for himself as he enters free agency. Nickel back Cortez Allen showed enough late in the season to make us think losing Lewis might not be the end of the world. On the back end, Ryan Clark was money, taking on more of a playmaking role in Troy Polamalu’s absence and more of a leadership role overall. The oft-injured Polamalu was oft-injured again, but began to look like his old self for the first time in more than a year during the final two games of the season. In Polamalu’s absence, Will Allen was nearly flawless if much less spectacular, although Allen also is a free agent.

2012 grade: A

2013 question: Will Troy rise again?

Punter

Ewwwwww. After unloading the overrated Daniel Sepulveda and losing the underrated Jeremy Kapinos to injury, Pittsburgh settled on rookie Drew Butler here and, frankly, he was terrible in his rookie season. Butler was 26th in average, 25th in net, 18th in punts inside the 20 and 23rd in fewest touchbacks. Also, his worst kicks came under the most pressure. Pittsburgh will certainly bring someone in to compete in 2013.

2012 grade: D

2013 question: A better option available?

Coordinator

When you look at the Steelers defensive talent and compare it to the defensive results, it’s easy to see that Dick LeBeau is still doing a good job, however old he is. He is coaching a defense without a pass rusher in a league where pass rushing is everything defensively. He’s limited and will continue to be until Pittsburgh finds the athletes to run a pressure scheme again. But the real reason Mike Tomlin should let LeBeau coach until the cows come home is that he can consistently motivate rich, spoiled NFL players to give full effort. That’s a rare quality.

2012 grade: B+

2013 question: In with the new?

 
 

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