Specialists Drag Defense Down

OLB Jason Gildon was a one trick pony. No player has more sacks as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers than Gildon. Ask him to do something else, say stop the opposition's running game or cover a tight end, and he'll likely complain to Bill Cowher, often frustrating the schemes of the recently departed Tim Lewis.

The defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers is staffed with specialists. The Steelers need ends that can play like tackles. They have a fireplug in Casey Hampton that doesn't help much in the nickel or even dime schemes. There is a two-down Pro Bowler in Kendrell Bell, but don't ask him to edge-rush. And, of course, there is the field-general position at free safety, Brent Alexander.

The Steelers run a complex defensive scheme. However, if just one player is not up to his specific task, the whole system falls apart. Personnel-wise, Bill Cowher's baby is high-maintenance and high-risk.

To some extent, there have been a few benefits to this scheme. Players that other teams pass over in the draft might thrive in Pittsburgh. The tweener defensive end in college is the perfect example. These players are often too small to make it on most NFL teams, but the Steelers have created a cottage industry in transforming them into rushing outside linebackers.

But this transformation takes time and such talent often rots on the bench for a year or two before contributing to the defense.

What Cowher creates is an overly programmed player that can't do much else but play his position in the way the defense is designed. Radical game-to-game, as well as in-game, adjustments are almost impossible.

If Cowher wants to continue his complex defensive schemes he needs to transform his personnel philosophy. What Cowher needs is a roster staffed with versatile players, not specialists.

Cowher inherited a number of versatile players from the Chuck Noll era. Greg Lloyd could play inside or outside linebacker in the 3-4. Carnell Lake and Rod Woodson could play any position in the secondary and even fill in at linebacker if needed.

Instead, the Steelers chased in the draft players of a certain build that could only play one position in Cowher's scheme, more cogs in the machine than football players.

Complex schemes and versatility go hand-in-hand and Bill Belichick's defense in New England is the shining example.

"Our defenses have always been flexible and multiple," Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel once said. "With this team we're able to do more things than usual because we have the kind of players who can play both [3-4 and 4-3]. So many of them can do different things.

"It just took awhile for us to learn what they do best."

"No matter who is in there to play, we have expected them to keep the level as high as it was when the other guy was in there," said linebacker Tedy Bruschi before the Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2002.

"There are a lot of guys that have played," Bruschi said. "Matt Chatham was merely a special teams guy, but he came in when we had some injuries and did a great job, and I think that he set the standard for guys that when you get in there, we still expect you do just like the guy before."

The Patriots just plug in another guy and play. They sport tremendous depth.

"But just because a player has made a Pro Bowl or has a marquee name because of his salary doesn't mean the player is necessarily a good football player," said Scott Pioli, the Patriots' director of player personnel. "That's the problem. Sometimes perception and reality are two completely different things.

"I know that Bill [Belichick] doesn't have a lot of patience for players that don't view football as being very important to them," he said. "All these guys are passionate about the game. We definitely thought there were some things about the personality of this team we had to change.

"We haven't won because we have a defense like the Ravens last year or an offense like the Rams two years ago. We've won because we put together a football team."

The Patriots are flexible enough to adjust the scheme to the strengths of their players, almost the exact opposite of what Cowher has sought to do during his tenure in Pittsburgh. That's why LB Mike Vrabel amounted to little for the Steelers while thriving for the Patriots.

''He keeps coming and coming and coming,'' said former Ohio State Coach John Cooper after the Steelers drafted Vrabel. ''He's relentless. He'll rush and get blocked, get up and rush again. He doesn't quit. I can't imagine a Pittsburgh Steelers player who will work harder than Mike Vrabel. We didn't have a guy here work harder than him.''

But the Steelers never quite knew what to do with the versatile and hard-working Vrabel.

They [Pittsburgh's coaches] said I'd get on the field for two series a game," Vrabel said as a New England Patriot, "but in actuality, things seldom worked out that way. I wound up being used on special teams and as a situational pass rusher, which wasn't the sort of opportunity I'd been hoping for."

However, Vrabel was a perfect fit in New England.

"It's hard to put into words what we've really done here [in New England]," linebacker Ted Johnson said. "I know it sounds hokey, but this truly is a team.

"In this day and age of professional sports, you don't get as many teams as you think. This team is together. The key to our season has been the character on the team. Thank God management understands that."

"We're starting to understand each other and where we fit in the overall scheme," Vrabel in obvious agreement with Johnson. "When we blitz, we have guys taking the right gaps. Guys are in the right spots to make plays and they're making them.

"Because we've got so many new guys on the team this year and we're doing so many different things, it took time to learn. Right now we've developed a solid rotation of 15 guys who understand the system and each other."

It is Vrabel's, along with his teammates', versatility that allows Crennel and Belichick the flexibility in scheme. The Steelers weren't sure what to do with Vrabel. Was he an inside linebacker or an outside linebacker? Could he play defensive end? What about defensive back? The Patriots discovered the answer was yes to all of those questions and a perfect fit in their defense.

The result is a defense that survived a rash of injuries and started rookies at a few positions. The Patriots stay true to their personnel philosophy in free agency and the draft. Are Ty Warren and Richard Seymour tackles or ends? A dilemma for some scouts is a first round pick to the Patriots.

Meanwhile, the Steelers are mostly married to the 3-4 thanks to a number of personnel choices through the years. All those diamonds in the rough have lost their luster and the Steelers struggle to change with the times.

In January of 2002, the New England Patriots and the NFL passed by Bill Cowher on the way to the Super Bowl. If Cowher would like to enjoy similar success now with his complex defensive scheme, better to have a jack-of-all-trades than a master of one.

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