It seems for years, (regardless of how dominant the Steelers' defense was during the time frame they were competing for championships) the Steelers have struggled to stop the elite QBs that consistently make quick reads. So I went back over the last 10 seasons to look at the TD-to-INT ratio of the Steelers' defense against Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Kurt Warner.
In 17 games against those five quarterbacks, the Steelers gave up 38 TD passes and have accumulated 6 interceptions. Take away 2004 and 2005, and in 13 games the Steelers' defense has given up 31 TD passes and accumulated only 2 interceptions.
Luckily, for Steelers fans, on one of those interceptions James Harrison took it upon himself do drop into coverage instead of executing his assigned blitz. That decision led to the greatest defensive play in Super Bowl history. The other interception was a deep sideline pass in which Ike Taylor intercepted Brees in 2010. That is 2 interceptions in 8 seasons. They haven't intercepted Manning or Brady since 2005.
Granted these are elite QBs and good TD-to-INT ratios are expected. But 31-to-2!??
Fans can correctly point to Taylor's lack of hands as part of the problem. I have also seen on several occasions where passes are clearly overthrown, but Ryan Clark is so locked into making the hit that he lets interception opportunities sail on by. Personnel strengths and weaknesses are one part of the issue.
The primary issue, I believe, involves the defensive philosophy. Specifically the soft cushions in the Steelers' cover-3.
Following the this year's Super Bowl, I had heard two different descriptions from Herman Edwards and Brian Baldinger as to how the Seahawks dominated the Broncos. Edwards said the Seahawks played primarily cover-3. Baldinger said the Seahawks played man on the outside and zone over the middle. After further review, it seemed Edwards was more accurate. It looked like man coverage on the outside, but what the Seahawks were running instead was a cover-3 with their corners playing press-bail. The Seahawks ran a good mix of man and zone in the first half, with the direction leaning slightly more toward zone coverage.
By playing tight coverage, regardless of man or zone, the Seahawks were able to take away quick outlets for Manning. You know, those quick hitches and outs that too often seem so easily available for opponents against the Steelers' defense. K.J. Wright was also seen jamming Wes Welker at the line of scrimmage, taking away underneath routes in the slot. These techniques allowed time for pressure to get to Manning -- and for the interceptions floated to Kam Chancellor and Malcolm Smith to occur.
Steelers fans have far too often witnessed pass rushers running free, only to have the ball quickly released to a hitch or out that gains nine yards. The elite QBs mentioned above have always been content taking 9 or 10 yards at a time while mixing in a few shots down the field.
A decrease in talent over the last few seasons has compounded the problem. However, part of the problem now is that many teams utilize a quick/ short passing game. They have all seen the game tape of the elite quarterbacks against the Steelers. Any astute fan should know just from watching games that consistent use of quick passes against the Steelers is part of the reason their sack numbers have declined.
Despite Cameron Heyward having 32 pressures and Jason Worilds leading the league in QB knockdowns, the turnover production is still putrid. I wouldn't say Chancellor and Smith are dynamic interceptors of the ball. It's more that the Seahawks' style of play creates more opportunities for guys like them to make plays on the ball.
It's time the Steelers tweaked their philosophy if they want to start creating turnovers. They need to look to run a cover-3 with corners that can play press-bail. With good corners, tighter coverage doesn't have to mean they will give up more big plays. They just need corners that can flip their hips and have the size/speed to cut off routes.
The second part to that equation is a dynamic free safety. Smart/physical safeties like Darren Perry and Clark were good in the past, but in today's quick passing league having a free safety who also has tremendous range to play center field is vital to allowing corners to play tighter in their zone on the outside.
Without a dynamic free safety, one more very good corner, and a slight shift in defensive philosophy to adjust with the times, expect more issues with creating turnovers in the seasons to come.