Steelers' Problems Likely Not Structural

Tunch Ilkin held his gnarled finger and his crooked thumb about a half inch apart and said to me, "That much." ... Read the rest of Jim Wexell's column inside.

... "Chuck Noll used to say if we just improved by that much – each of us – the cumulative effect would be stunning."

Tunch was the next-to-last – the penultimate – guy with whom I talked this past week about the Steelers. And I talked to a lot of people. The gist of the interviews went something like this:

What's wrong with this team?

I didn't know. I usually do. Or I think I do. But after watching them win only two of five games so far my thoughts tend more to the missed opportunities and how some fine-tuning was all it might take to put the them on the right side of the fine line in this league.

Specifically, these thoughts tended to the offensive side of the ball, where Ben Roethlisberger and his underachieving receivers have everything it takes to begin, well, achieving.

But everyone else, it seemed, blamed the defense, including Bill Cowher, who said on his pre-game show, "The number one player is Ike Taylor. What Dick (LeBeau) will have to do is protect him over the top with a safety."

The Steelers have ridden the Ike Taylor rollercoaster through the years. Cowher even benched him down the stretch in 2006. And in Super Bowl 43, Taylor was beaten badly down the middle of the field by Larry Fitzgerald for the go-ahead touchdown with 2:37 left in the game. Roethlisberger and his receivers overcame that disaster, just as they'll overcome Taylor's Tennessee disaster.

Or so I assume.

But Cowher does make a good point. The problem is: The safety position just might be in ashes without Troy Polamalu.

Of course, that's a problem for the next off-season. There's little to do now but scheme around the problem. And that's where the next wave of criticism crashed – on LeBeau.

The most pointed criticism routinely comes from those who question the combination of soft cornerback cushions (in their cover-3 base) against veteran quarterbacks who can get rid of the ball in three steps, or before James Harrison and/or LaMarr Woodley get there.

But the latest wave of criticism involved the style of cornerbacks the team drafts and then plays in this allegedly outdated scheme.

When the Steelers drafted Keenan Lewis in the third round in 2009, they compared him to Taylor. And when the Steelers drafted Cortez Allen in the fourth round in 2011, they compared him to Taylor.

Taylor is a big and fast and physical corner, who in the words of LeBeau "can get 'em on the ground." He's the prototype for the position in LeBeau's base cover-3. LeBeau and the Steelers don't enter drafts looking for cover corners. They want corners who can play like safeties off the line and hit like them, too. The Steelers are never as thrilled as when they can draft one of these 6-1, 195-pound muscular sprinters in the middle rounds.

But with so many balls in the air these days, corners have to be playmakers, and the Steelers have only 12 interceptions from their cornerbacks in the last 3-plus seasons. In that same time, both of the cornerbacks for the Cincinnati BengalsLeon Hall and Terence Newman – have 12 interceptions apiece.

It's little wonder those big, fast and physical corners are available in the middle rounds. They can't catch, and Lewis proved that again last week by dropping the game-clinching interception.

So this became a theory I could buy into.

"I can't," said my penultimate friend Ilkin. "There's nothing wrong with this scheme or this coaching or the style of player they draft. Was it a problem in 2005? In 2008? Hey, they should've beaten the Packers in 2010.

"You have to remember how cyclical this league is. What's not in vogue today just might be back in vogue four games from now. You just have to be confident in your approach and stay the course."

That's when Tunch held up the half-inch sign. That's when he said, "It's just a matter of making a few more plays."

Practice ended a few minutes later. It was coordinator day and the target for my final interview of the week was LeBeau himself.

Now, I wasn't about to blast away with embarrassing questions that he couldn't and surely wouldn't answer. I really just wanted to hear what he had to say to the rest of the mob.

"It's an 11-man situation," LeBeau explained. "It's not the defensive line, linebackers, or the defensive backs. It's not the defenses that are called, but it's a combination.

"All of these games were really one-play games. We have to be the ones that find a way to make a play at the end of the game that swings our way. We all know we have to get better and we are working on that. These guys are going to fight through it and we are going to come out on top. I am really confident in that."

And after a week of flip-flopping like a politician, so am I.


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