Sunday's game me had thinking the Steelers' defense doesn't have enough talent, and their offense is designed to stop itself. And both sides of the ball seem to be influenced by leadership that seems unable to see the forest for the trees when it comes to building a championship-level football team.
Defensively, you know there are issues when a 36-year-old defensive end can run down the opponents' tight end, but its supposed top cornerback can't. Between Troy Polamalu being out of position (possibly to compensate for his lack of speed) and Cortez Allen, the secondary as it stands has some speed issues.
Going off recent draft history, this staff seems to think it can get by with average talent at corner. That baffles me. A corner has so much more impact than an inside linebacker. A corner who can play on an island can make the other 10 defensive players better. If the Steelers had a corner that could take a side one on one, then they can move an extra safety in the box and double or help the other side. Teams could limit that effect by spreading the Steelers out. But that would seem to be more reason to invest in quality corners very early in the draft. The fact that they would have passed over Kyle Fuller for Ryan Shazier is frightening to me. Because I believe ILB is the defensive equivalent of the RB or WR positions on offense. Inside Linebackers typically require a lot of talent around them to make a substantial impact.
Ray Lewis had Tony Siragusa, Sam Adams, Michael McCrary, Peter Boulware, and Chris McAlister. In 2012, he had Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, and Ed Reed. An all-time great like Derrick Brooks wouldn't have won a championship without Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice. Lavonte David is a great player, but he doesn't make much of an impact when his teammates can't cover or rush the passer.
The New York Giants recently won two Super Bowls with pass-rushers coming in droves. They won despite having a very average linebacker corps. The Seattle Seahawks have very good pass-rushers. But last year, their secondary made those pass rushers look great. And tipped cornerback passes and quarterback hits turned a seventh-round pick, an OLB, into a playoff hero and Super Bowl MVP.
Shazier might turn out to be a stud. It won't translate into a championship unless he has the necessary amount of talent around him. History shows championships are primarily won on defense with either a great pass rush, or good pass rush and great corner play. I think with Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones, the Steelers have good pass-rush potential. Great pass-rushers like James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, whom the Steelers had between 2008-2010, is like catching lightning in a bottle. If Steelers fans want to look for that to happen again, they're going to be waiting a long time.
The Steelers need a top corner. The Top 15 is where you get those guys. The jury is still out on Darqueze Dennard. After his injury, he's been stuck behind veterans. I believe the Steelers should have traded down and landed him or took him at 15. You can win with Sean Spence and Vince Williams if you have a stud cover and a good pass rush, qualities Shazier will still need around him. But Mike Tomlin seems to want to use 4-3 blueprint for his 3-4 inside linebackers. Shazier can't cover every blade of grass even if he ran a 2.3 forty. A 4.7/4.8 guy can be a tackling machine if he has instincts and a defensive line that can keep offensive linemen off him. Those guys can be found later in the draft. Ask Vince Williams.
There were some positives from the defense yesterday. They were putting pressure on Brian Hoyer and stuffing the run the first three possessions. Mike Mitchell played really well. The run defense seemed solid until Steve McLendon left the game with an injury. That could be coincidence, but I doubt it. I believe young players like Stephon Tuitt and Shamarko Thomas are going to be significant pieces in the future. But the biggest question marks of the future reside at the most critical positions. And that concerns me.
Hoyer made a great third-down pass under a collapsing pocket to convert a third down and avoid a third consecutive three-and-out to start the game. From there, the Cleveland Browns destroyed the Steelers by doing something that for some unconscionable reason Todd Haley was unwilling to do: call a play-action pass from under center.
At least the Steelers did commit to running the ball early. From there I was looking forward to seeing Ben Roethlisberger connect on some big plays off play-action, just like the good old days. So I waited -- and waited -- and waited. But Haley chose to use toe early success of the running game not to play-action but to run a reverse and use the empty-back set four times -- options that make no sense on any rational level.
The point of run-game commitment is to set up the passing game down the field. It was the formula that allowed the Steelers to score 38 points on 11 passes against Tennessee in 2005, or score 35 points on 14 passes against Houston in 2008, or alloweded Roethlisberger to throw five first-half touchdowns against Baltimore and score 35 points on only 16 passes in 2007. Former coordinator Ken Whisenhunt had it down perfectly: The run set up big plays with play-action down the field. The big plays down the field set up big plays in the screen game, or on quick slants. These are the types of plays that allow a team to overcome a mistake here or there. One drop, sack, or penalty in this dink/dunk offense and the drive is over.
The play-action pass gave the Browns two quick touchdowns, and their third touchdown of the half was set up by a substantial gain off said pass play. It allowed the Browns to run to win in the second half and score 31 points on only 17 passes. The finesse Steelers got beat by the old, physical Steelers' formula yesterday.
The offense we saw yesterday in Cleveland is the type of offense I've wanted to see in Pittsburgh for quite some time. Cleveland's offensive line ran that stretch zone aggressively. The Browns used bootlegs, moved the pocket, and ran the play-action that led to huge plays. The creativity and/or use of their tight ends in both the run and pass game should make a Steelers fan envious about Browns coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
Of course, the Steelers have Haley. His game plans the last three weeks have been elementary, to say the least. He seems to look at the league stats and then game-plan based on the opponent's defensive rankings. The Bucs and Jaguars ranked at the bottom of the league in pass defense. So Haley got pass happy. The Browns were 31st in yards per carry against the run. So Haley went run crazy and never used it to set up the pass. If you're a future Steelers opponent, just look at your rankings and you'll know how Haley will try to attack you. He'll also use three of more wide receiver sets instead of two tight ends or a fullback and therefore invite extra defensive backs on the field that make it much more difficult to get huge chunks down the field. Whether it's going pass happy in spread formations or run crazy without setting up play-action, both are recipes to struggle -- something you would hope a coordinator at the professional level would have enough sense to understand.
Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys keep relentlessly committing to balance: 33 pass attempts (counting a sack) and 35 rush attempts (not counting two kneel-downs), and it keeps working. The Browns' scheme, combined with the Cowboys' balance commitment, is the ideal offense for the Steelers' current personnel. But a coordinator who calls a fake fullback dive pitchout and a long low percentage pass down the sideline on two third-and-1s against one of the worst run defense in the NFL wouldn't seem to have enough sense to realize it. At times yesterday, it felt as if Haley was picking plays out of a hat.
For a while now, I thought the Steelers lack of interceptions had to do with their soft cover-3 scheme. Yet, the Seahawks have only two interceptions this year. The Steelers seem to be playing more press than in the past. It hasn't translated into more turnovers. It has me thinking there's just not enough talent on defense. Specifically, not enough star power at outside linebacker or corner.
On offense there is enough talent. This isn't exactly Kent Graham throwing to Courtney Hawkins and Will Blackwell. As a friend said to me yesterday however, it's an offense designed to consistently stall themselves.
The Steelers don't have the defensive pieces in place to be a championship team. They have enough pieces on offense to be a playoff caliber team. With the current philosophy allowed on offense by the head coach and called by the OC, I don't see the playoffs happening.