Behind Enemy Lines: Seahawks-Steelers, Part 3

In Part 3 of our Steelers-Seahawks game preview, Doug Farrar asks Ryan Wilson five more questions about Pittsburgh. Why will Mike Tomlin be an effective head coach, will there be any changes in defensive scheme as a result of Tomlin's arrival, and how close are the Steelers to the top of the AFC?

Doug Farrar, Seahawks.NET: After head coach Bill Cowher left the Steelers, the word was that Cowher somehow held defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau back. How did that manifest itself if it was true, and what differences have you seen in the defense this season?

Ryan Wilson, Eh, I don't know. The only example I'm aware of was during the 2004 game against the Redskins. On first and goal, the Pittsburgh stuffed Washington on two consecutive plays, and on the third play, Cowher overturned LeBeau's play call and Patrick Ramsey threw a touchdown pass to Chris Cooley.

I'm sure there are other instances, but Cowher was used to being in control. Plus, he fancied himself a defensive guy, although I don't think anybody would say he was in Dick LeBeau's league. Mike Tomlin's a defensive guy too. The difference is that he has no problem with letting LeBeau have the run of the place.

On more than one occasion, Tomlin has been in film study with LeBeau, taking notes and learning the nuances of the zone-blitz defense. Despite learning under Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay, Tomlin's not married to any one scheme -- at least that's what he preaches -- and is fond of saying that "players are more important than schemes."

Through four games, I haven't noticed much difference in the Steelers' defense other than defensive end Brett Keisel, who will sometimes move around Adalius Thomas-like in third-down situations.

Doug Farrar: Speaking of coaches, why did the Steelers hire Mike Tomlin over “incumbents” Ken Whisenhunt and/or Russ Grimm? And why will Tomlin succeed as a head coach when guys like Norv Turner can’t ever seem to get it right?

Ryan Wilson: It's a little too early to say Tomlin's a success as a head coach, but I suspect the Chargers would trade Norvell for him straight up. You know, it never really came out why Whisenhunt or Grimm didn't get the job -- and at the time, I was pro-Whisenhunt, and lukewarm on Grimm. And honestly, I figured Tomlin didn't have a shot in the dark, so I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about it.

And then, when Michael Silver broke the story, I was kind of in shock. But in the eight months or so on the job, he has said exactly the right things -- both to the media and apparently to his players. The Pittsburgh media can be a crotchety bunch, but I was at training camp a few days in August and no one had a bad word to say about him. Not a peep.

I don't know Turner's coaching style (and it looks like he doesn't either) but Tomlin's players respect him. His big thing is being honest, even if it's brutal honesty, because then everybody understands each other. So many times, communication is the downfall of a good team (the Bengals come to mind), and Tomlin is very good at getting his message out, and doing it a way that motivates his players.

Doug Farrar: What can you tell us about rookie linebackers Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley?

Ryan Wilson: Timmons' family calls him Juan, which I think is absolutely awesome. He was also injured for almost all of minicamp and training camp, and Steelers fans were extremely frustrated about that. I didn't like the idea of using the 15th pick on a guy who had only started for one year in college, and a lot of people felt similarly, but Tomlin compared him to Derrick Brooks, so I'm willing to hold off on passing judgment.

So far, Timmons has been on special teams, and excepting a big penalty against the Cards (the Steelers had to re-punt, and Steve Breaston took it to the house), he's been great. And the good thing about coming to Pittsburgh is that there's no rush to get him on the field. He's practicing at both inside and outside linebacker, but James Farrior and Larry Foote aren't going anywhere in the middle, and James Harrison is doing well as Joey Porter's replacement. Timmons is just 21, so this is basically his redshirt year.

Woodley was a pleasant surprise. He was primarily a defensive end at Michigan (although the Wolverines experimented briefly with the 3-4), so he had to make the transition to outside 3-4 linebacker in Pittsburgh. And it seemingly happened in about a two-week period. He started a couple of preseason games and fared surprisingly well, and he's gotten a couple of sacks during the regular season.

Outside linebacker Clark Haggans is in the last year of his contract, and what the team decides to do with him could be contingent on how Woodley progresses. So far, he's been wonderful, and his ability to drop into pass coverage is jaw-droppingly impressive for a guy who runs 6-4, 260.

Doug Farrar: Troy Polamalu aside, the secondary seemed to be a real liability last year. What has been done to shore that unit up?

Ryan Wilson: A lot of pep talks, I think. Heading into the draft, I would've been fine if the Steelers took Darrelle Revis at 1.15. The Jets traded up and grabbed Revis, so it was moot, but the point remained: the cornerbacks had some issues.

Tomlin was a D-backs coach in Tampa Bay, and John Lynch and Ronde Barber spoke glowingly of his ability to get the most out of his players. I think that was the thought process heading into the 2007 season. Tomlin took the struggling Ike Taylor under his wing, and he's seemed to respond positively. Taylor still has a lot of room for improvement, but if nothing else, he seems more confident. Deshea Townsend isn't the most athletic cornerback, but he's certainly one of the smartest. He's a liability deep, but he's great at recognizing coverages and is a sure tackler. And unlike Taylor, he can actually catch. McFadden, who I mentioned is out with a high-ankle sprain, has done just enough to remain the team's nickel back. A 2005 second-round pick, he had a good rookie season, but suffered from inconsistency last year.

And then there's the guy drafted after Roethlisberger in '04: cornerback Ricardo Colclough. He has gotten progressively worse each year, and now, in the last year of his rookie deal, he's been inactive all four weeks. The guy has gobs of talent, but he's evidently not a locker room guy, and that won't work under Tomlin. Because of McFadden's injury, Colclough will likely dress this weekend, though.

Doug Farrar: The Steelers looked fairly dominant in their first three games. What did the loss to the Cardinals last week reveal about this team from a weakness perspective, and what do the Steelers have to fix going forward if they are to compete with the Patriots and Colts for AFC supremacy?

Ryan Wilson: For one, don't play former offensive coordinators who were also screwed out of the head-coaching job. Seriously, the loss wasn't as devastating as any of the eight the team suffered last year. Arizona's not a bad team, and their defense was impressive Sunday.

In terms of Steelers fixes, it's nothing new: if the running game doesn't work, the offense breaks down. It's not that Roethlisberger can't move the ball effectively through the air, it's that the o-line isn't good enough to give him five seconds to decide on a target. The Cards stacked the line of scrimmage, run-blitzed like crazy, and it worked.

Teams that have been successful against Pittsburgh have employed similar game plans. It's nothing tricky, but if the Steelers can't run the ball, it takes them out of the rest of their game.

In terms of matching up with the Patriots … well, I have no idea. That team is about as close to perfection as you're going to get, and they don't make a lot of mistakes. They don't have their best defensive player in Richard Seymour and are just getting back Rodney Harrison, and they still rank second in defensive DVOA. How do you stop that? I suppose if the Steelers can control the line of scrimmage, and run the ball for, oh, about 55 minutes, they'll have a chance. Right now, though, everybody in the AFC is playing for second place heading into the postseason. Top Stories