Impatience Hindering Steelers' Playmakers

"Undisciplined" is the word of the week in Steelers Nation. And I have to laugh a little bit, because ...

... everyone who's saying it is pointing at the yellow flag count, and nobody who is saying it seems to be pointing at safety Mike Mitchell leaving his post while Louis Murphy caught a game-changing pass in the middle of his assigned zone.

The most glaring, most costly example of a breakdown in discipline has gone largely ignored, perhaps unnoticed by critics of the coaching staff.

Last year, costly big plays were given up to Tyler Eifert, Torrey Smith and Calvin Johnson when Ryan Clark (on two occasions) and Will Allen similarly vacated their responsibilities to chase underneath receivers.

For anyone arguing that the team's failures are the result of a lack of discipline on Tomlin's watch, safeties abandoning their posts should be exhibit A. The issue has been far costlier than penalties, resulting in huge plays surrendered on multiple occasions, and it's been a problem far longer, dating back to last season.

Yet it escapes mention by critics calling for heads to roll, most of whom blamed those big plays not on the safeties, but on Ike Taylor last season. Thanks to injury, the song is "Cortez Allen sucks." But it's sung to the same tune.

Perhaps the critics assigned blame without determining responsibility. Perhaps they realize that a discipline problem that dates to last season can't be blamed on Tomlin's response to Le'Veon Bell's and LeGarrette Blount's run-in with the law, or to offensive coordinator Todd Haley's missed flight.

Whatever the case, they're missing a bigger problem through the focus on the flags.

The problem of abandoned assignments adds clarity to the nature of the issue. It's easy to see breakdowns in discipline and assume they indicate a lack of discipline, but that's not necessarily the case.

The same failures can come when authority becomes repressive. And when it's seasoned veterans such as Clark and Troy Polamalu whose actions are at fault, that's strong evidence that the problem is too much discipline, not too little.

It's pretty easy for critics to say that Mitchell is a dumb, undisciplined hothead, particularly after his Ravens game meltdown. Hard to say the same thing about Clark, who made a career more out of discipline and smarts than physical talent. It's simply absurd to suggest that Clark's breakdowns in discipline had anything to do with him tuning out the coach or not knowing better.

The same can be said of some of the penalties. When Polamalu and Brett Keisel draw flags for a facemask and illegal use of hands, it's a safe bet that it's not a failure of coaching or an example of stupidity.

So while the coaches' critics have a point — there are too many mistakes and too many breakdowns in discipline — I think they're wrong to interpret it as a sign of a soft coaching staff that has lost control of its players.

Rather, it seems that the root of the problem is a group of defensive players frustrated at their inability to make plays in the framework of Dick LeBeau's defense. To the extent that discipline has deteriorated on that side of the ball, it's because the coaching is too rigid, not too soft.

Scheme before players

I found irony in Roddy White's tweet about the Steelers' loss: "Todd Haley problem is he really thinks that coaches win games not players." Not just because Haley had brilliant plays such as the flea flicker that Antonio Brown dropped and the fake screen that Ben Roethlisberger airmailed over Markus Wheaton's head, but because LeBeau's defense had me thinking the same thing about him.

The Murphy catch was just that sort of play. Big-money cornerback Allen? Ten yards off the line at the snap, then backpedaling into a deep zone. Pricey free agent safety Mitchell? Deep zone. Hall of Famer Polamalu? Deep zone.

Like Haley's playcalls, LeBeau's playcalls could've been successful if the players executed correctly. The difference is, Haley asked his playmakers to make plays. LeBeau asked his to ... well ... stand there and wait. Like a SEAL team hired to be mall cops.

That's the definition of trying to win with coaching instead of players.

When Mike Evans pulled up lame against the Buccaneers, the Steelers had the opportunity to put their one remaining tall cornerback on the Buccaneers' one remaining tall receiver. Failing that, they had an opportunity, with one less imposing big-play threat, to play more aggressive coverage. But right cornerback William Gay was matched on Vincent Jackson until the bitter end. And if anything, the cushions got bigger when Evans left the game.

Simply put, the on-field trust extended to Allen was next to nothing. The $6 million man was second fiddle to Gay. The job he's being paid to do is different from the job he's being assigned to do. Many people agree with that stance. I don't, and neither, apparently, does the person who signed off on his big-money contract extension.

Same goes for Mitchell. He had four sacks last season for a team that got 48 sacks out of its front seven. This team is desperate for pressure. Has anybody seen a blitz called for him this season?

It's simply the latest illustration of the disconnect between the guy who calls the shots and the guy who calls the defense.

Bumpy transition

A few weeks ago, I alluded to the fact that the Steelers' defense was suffering from the fact that most of the recent acquisitions will play most of their careers in a defense not designed by LeBeau. The evaluations and valuations of players are done with another system in mind.

The ongoing transition has been mostly without acrimony. Who can forget Tomlin's classic assertion of confidence that LeBeau would solve the team's problems: "Because he's Dick LeBeau. Does that answer your question?" There's a palpable bond of respect in the relationship.

But that respect doesn't mean that Allen or Mitchell or Shamarko Thomas has the stature in LeBeau's defense that they apparently have in Tomlin's plans.

Nor does it mean Tomlin's plans focus on giving LeBeau the best players to work with in his system. Probably everyone who follows the Steelers knows somebody who couldn't figure out what the Steelers wanted with lighter inside linebackers such as Sean Spence and Ryan Shazier — other than to convert them to safety. The questions about how players fit the scheme started with pick No.1, Lawrence Timmons, and never really went away.

Which is not to say Tomlin's spending resources on guys who can't execute LeBeau's playbook. They can, but they're not prototypical. He sacrifices the ideal right now to get someone who has value beyond what LeBeau's defense requires.

But some of the players Tomlin has identified as cornerstones seem marginalized by LeBeau. Mitchell is an aggressive safety whose resume includes in-the-box playmaking and quality man coverage against the likes of Antonio Gates. What's asked of him is basically the same as was asked of Will Allen last season when Polamalu was on loan to the linebacking corps. Cortez Allen is a physical corner who prefers to re-route receivers at the line. As a rookie, he was the team's best option to check Rob Gronkowski in a big win. Now he plays huge, conservative cushions.

They're two players who thrive on taking initiative and forcing offensive players to adjust. LeBeau has them surrendering initiative and adjusting to what offensive players do with their free release off the line.

LeBeau's job has a smaller margin for error the more Tomlin builds for the future, so he clings to veterans chosen and groomed specifically for his defense wherever he has the opportunity, which might explain why Steve McLendon had no major role on the defensive line until Casey Hampton's contract was up, and why Cameron Heyward couldn't crack the starting lineup without a publicly made executive decree by Tomlin.

Don't get me wrong: I've long defended the defensive coaches' penchant for bringing young players along at what critics see as a glacial pace, and I'm not backing away from that. If Stephon Tuitt isn't ready to see the field more, he's not ready.

I understand the virtue of patience. And especially in the midst of a transition that was bound to be difficult, it's essential.

Frustration saps focus

But patience has its limits. For instance, If you want to sit back and wait for Mike Glennon to make a mistake, you might be waiting a while. The supposed "backup QB" completed 17 of 23 passes with two TDs and no INTs for a 123.1 QB rating last season against Seattle's relentless defensive line and No. 1-in-basically-every-category passing defense. As a rookie, that is. He was a year better on Sunday.

Fans are always going to struggle with patience, so the calls for heads to roll in the coaching staff aren't likely to create a sense of urgency for an organization whose strong suit is patience.

Restlessness on the roster should. Players on the defense are frustrated.

The coaches are bringing officials in to monitor practice. I hope it's just window dressing to placate critics, because it's basically useless. Polamalu doesn't need to be told what a facemask penalty is any more than Mitchell needs to be told the importance of not leaving his assignment. They understand their jobs. They're simply fed up with the results — or lack thereof.

LeBeau has by no means "lost" his players. They're still giving him maximum effort on every snap. And I'd even bet that, if asked the question, most of them would tell you that the missing ingredient from LeBeau's defense is better execution on their part. Polamalu's words after the Ravens game were that the team needed to "practice better."

But on the field, their actions speak differently. The persistent penalties and blown assignments are from players who absolutely know what's expected of them, both by the coaches and the officials. The reason they're not living up to the expectations isn't because they're confused or because they don't care. It's frustration, coupled with the confidence that they're capable of doing more.

And when frustration reaches the extent that Ryan Clark makes Anthony Smith decisions, it's clear that the defensive scheme is asking for more patience than is reasonable to expect.

In this case, the path to achieving discipline is providing greater freedom. It's time for the guys who are penciled in for playmaking roles by Tomlin to be turned loose. LeBeau needs to put as much trust in his players as they've put in his scheme.

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