Defensive Line Not All That Bad Off

Marty Flaherty takes another look at the performance of the Steelers' DL against the Ravens.

Tight end Ed Dickson never really found his niche with the Baltimore Ravens -- who made him a third-round pick -- and only managed a one-year deal in free agency. He's played only 30 percent of the Carolina Panthers' snaps, and he's been targeted with just one pass. So the Steelers probably aren't game-planning for him.

But he might be girding for a bigger workload on Sunday night.

The Cleveland Browns rolled out a lot of Jim Dray and Gary Barnidge, playing multiple TEs, even with Jordan Cameron missing time to injury. And the Ravens took it further, with No. 2 TE Owen Daniels playing three-fourths of the teams's snaps, compared with 36 percent a week earlier. No. 3 Crockett Gilmore played almost a fifth of the snaps, after zero offensive snaps in Week One.

Steelers opponents used to trot out extra wideouts to try to get Casey Hampton off the field. Now they appear to be running two-TE looks to keep base personnel on the field and take advantage of what has been a weak front.

Cam Thomas (67 percent of snaps), Steve McLendon (45 percent) and Brett Keisel (66 percent) are all signed through 2015 for relatively small money. Three of the top four members of the DL rotation are basically stopgaps.

The Panthers can likely dictate personnel match-ups, but I'm not sure they'll find the flaccid resistance they expect.

Re-watching the Steelers' defensive performance against the Ravens, the debacle I was expecting, that I thought I had remembered, kept on refusing to materialize.

Even from Cam Thomas, who was significantly better at left end, even against the tougher match-up of All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda. Thomas even had several decent snaps on the nose, to balance out the ones in which he was pushed well off the ball.

The performance at the line of scrimmage was much better. Not that it had another direction to go. Of the 152 yards on 30 RB carries, the Ravens gained 79 on their final two drives on six carries. Through the first 50 minutes of football, and before Steve McLendon left the field with an injury, they were giving up three yards a carry.

Not to come off as making excuses, but they didn't get gashed until they were shorthanded, at the tail end of a road game on a short week in which Baltimore won the time-of-possession by more than 10 minutes.

The disaster was there in the end, but given the circumstances, it's kind of hard for me to blame them for crumbling at that point.

The line acquitted itself better than it did in the Browns game, though certainly they had help, some of which opened opportunities in the passing game, mostly for Daniels. But I found it encouraging.

On a three-man line, running two stopgaps out there together is obviously going to put you at a disadvantage. But with Stephon Tuitt waiting in the wings, it's a temporary condition.

McLendon's not a "pure" NT. But he's capable of faking it as well as Chris Hoke did for a top-ranked run defense that was without Hampton for two-thirds of the season in 2004.

And in the event that I'm completely off the mark and the defensive line doesn't rise to the occasion on Sunday night, it's worth keeping in mind that the failure is mostly of placeholders.

With or without Dick LeBeau moving forward, it's pretty clear that the 3-4 defense the team has run for so long is being downgraded from scheme to tactic.

The two-man front nickel that we saw in the preseason and the 4-6-1 deployed at the goal line against the Ravens both had their weaknesses exposed. But they also foreshadowed a defense that's aggressively match-up oriented and tied to different looks.

When Mike Tomlin was chosen as head coach, his Tampa-2 roots spurred much discussion that ended up being fruitless about whether a switch to a 4-3 defense was in the making. But while that speculation proved false, it nonetheless was inevitable that Tomlin would put his stamp on the defense.

As such, the team has confronted the issue of straddling a fence between present and future when it comes to roster construction. The short-term stopgaps are scheme fits that allow LeBeau to continue to run his defense while Tomlin gathers multifaceted players who can enable a myriad of sub-packages.

Ziggy Hood was drafted in part because of his potential as an inside rusher in nickel and dime packages, as well as the ability to play over center. He was not so much a five-technique as a zero-to-five technique, though he never really excelled at any of them. Heyward and Tuitt have similar versatility, but hopefully will get better results.

Eventually, the versatility will allow for the deployment of many looks on defense, with the flexibility to move players around to exploit match-ups. But in the short term, it appears as though it's being used to plug leaks in the defensive front.

It's not ideal, but it might be enough to beat a shorthanded Carolina squad.


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