"A lot of it, when you look at coverages, is your rush," Cowher said about poor pass defense. "Some of it was approaches with how we did things. Passing was up all around the NFL last year. We had some people who, frankly, said when they play us we're not going to even try to run the football."
There seems little debate that the problem with the Steelers last season was the pass defense. However, the bottom line is simply that Pittsburgh let up 8 points more per game than they did in 2001. Something changed. Was it the pass rush?
The problem was on third down. The defense, mostly in the dime, just could not get off the field. By now, most Steeler fans are quite familiar with the following statistic: The Steel Curtain allowed 43.6% of third down plays to go for a first down, 27th in the NFL. That's a dramatic drop from 2001 when the Steelers were 7th, allowing only 34.2% conversion rate.
If you listen to Cowher and defensive coordinator Tim Lewis, as Jim Wexell reported a few weeks ago, the solution is to get Kendrell Bell in on third downs, perhaps in a nickel formation, instead of the dime that the Steelers usually use.
The nickel would bring two new players to the field on third downs, and Alonzo Jackson is not either one of them. In fact, the effectiveness of the nickel may have less to do with sacks than it does in the dime.
Given all the hype about the pass rush on third down, given the Steelers defensive success in 2001, wouldn't you expect the defense to have more sacks?
The Steelers had more sacks (55) overall in 2001 than they did in 2002 (50). However, Blitzburgh generated more sacks (15) on third down in 2002 than they did on third down in 2001 (10).
Running a 3-4 base scheme, the Steelers generate most of their sacks on first and second down, not third. Over the last four years, almost 70% of the sacks came on first or second down. In 2001, a dominant season for the Steel Curtain, that figure was up to almost 80%. 43 out of the Steelers record 55 sacks came before third down.
Interestingly, the sack production went down on those traditional running downs in 2002, from 43 in 2001 to 34 in 2002. So did the number of sacks the Steelers had when blitzing, 30 to 21. The Steelers do most of their blitzing when in their base defense, the scheme that confuses opposing QBs the most.
Compare the Steelers to another sack happy team, the Miami Dolphins. In 2002, Miami sacked the QB 24 times on third down, out of 47 total sacks. They also did it without blitzing all that much. The Dolphins only had 8 sacks off of the blitz last season.
The Dolphins sack statistics look a lot like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers'. The Bucs also get more sacks on third down than the Steelers do and they don't blitz all that much either (8 out of 43 total sacks in 2002 came on the blitz). What the Dolphins and Bucs do that the Steelers don't do is cover well.
If passing was up last season in the NFL, as Cowher said it was, you can expect that most of the increase came on first and second downs. The Steelers were probably spread out of their base defense more than they liked to be, hence the drop in sack production. Hence, the coaching staff has been trying to figure out a way to incorporate Casey Hampton and Kendrell Bell in a pass defense. Otherwise, those two rising stars will be off the field for more than just third down.
That still leaves us with the issue of 3rd down conversion rates. What happened in the course of one off-season? What happened was that the opposition figured out that Lee Flowers was the weak link in the pass defense. Cowher has been unequivocal about that. The Steelers were forced to play soft in coverage so they wouldn't get beaten deep. Troy Polamalu should fix problem, handily.
However, Lewis and his staff won't stop there. Cowher has been eyeing, greedily, the success of Tampa Bay's pass defense. What that means is less blitzing, not more. The nickel should replace the dime, depending on how Bell picks things up.
"When you watched the Super Bowl and you watched the games Tampa played in all year, it didn't matter really what they saw. They were able to play nickel versus any set," Lewis said. "Versus regular people, two-tight end sets, three-tight end sets, they used their nickel and they were very successful with it. So nickel has to be a very versatile set for us. It has to be a versatile defensive front for us. You have to be able to stop the run and the pass and so we added a nickel back on the field, an extra cornerback, and so we feel pretty good about matching up against 3-wide sets. At the same time, if they keep a tight end on the field we've got some bigger guys out there who can stop the run also."
Alonzo Jackson might see some time in a front six that will include Aaron Smith, Hampton, Bell, Jason Gildon, and Joey Porter. Then again, the Steelers could add James Farrior as the second LB in a 4-2-5 arrangement. In all likelihood, Jackson will not see much field time on defense.
The Steelers did not really draft Jackson to improve the pass rush. They drafted him so he could eventually replace Gildon. Like Gildon did in his first two seasons behind Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd, he will have to make his mark on special teams.
This is no small task. The Steelers were the best in the AFC last season in terms of first downs surrendered per game. How can the opposition have such great success on third down against the Steelers but not move the chains that often during the game? The answer is a short field. By now, this is an old story in this column.