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The Secondary Dilema

The secondary has been a thorn in the side of the Steelers for some time. At least in the eyes of most fans. But for the coaches and FO the view seems to be much different. And that’s because under legendary DC Dick Lebeau the job of the secondary has long been to keep the play in front of them, know how to tackle and occasionally be tasked to go after the QB on sneaky corner or safety blitzes. Statistics and results seem to back up the coaches and the team vs. the fans. Just look at where the Steelers defense is ranked every year. But everyone knows statistics can be and usually are at least somewhat misleading. For proof of that just look at the Super Bowl last year, or the last Super Bowl the Steelers did win, or any other number of games in recent years where the Steelers secondary has been shredded when an opposing offense decides to spread the defense and  air out the ball. Or watch any Steeler game that involves Tom Brady, it’s not pretty.

The Steelers are a very conservative organization when it comes to personnel moves and free agency signings, so anyone expecting the team to make a big splash in FA by signing, say, former FA superstar CB Nnamdi Asomugha were just setting themselves up for disappointment. Instead the Steelers prefer to sign lesser known FA’s to maximize value, guys like current starting FS Ryan Clark and just recently, former Giants CB Kevin Dockery. FA is really an afterthought most of the time as the Steelers clearly prefer to build the team via the draft over free agency, and that includes the secondary. The Steelers hit paydirt back in 2003 when they drafted future Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu. Since 2003 the team has drafted Ike Taylor (same year as Troy), Ricardo Colclough (remember him?), Bryant McFadden, Anthony Smith, Willie Gay, Joe Burnett, Keenan Lewis, Ryan Mundy, Crezdon Butler, and in this year’s draft, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown.

That’s a long list and most of those players either are no longer on the team or have turned out be fairly mediocre (Willie Gay and arguably Bryant McFadden). The Steelers since 2003 have spent two 2nd round picks (McFadden and Colclough) and three 3rd round picks on DB’s (Anthony Smith, Lewis and in this year’s draft, Curtis Brown). No 1st round picks have been used on DB’s since Troy was drafted.

Given the above and the results on the field and a strong case can be made that the Steelers simply do not develop DB’s very well and/or have a system in place that does not aid in developing good cover corners. Lebeau’s system is all about keeping everything in front of the DB, making the tackle but not necessarily defending the pass. Looking at it from this perspective the best move the Steelers could make would be to start drafting more DB’s in the 1st round that have superb natural talent (ie, another Troy).

Of course it’s unrealistic to expect that to happen at every position in the secondary. So what will the Steelers do about this area of the team going forward? Continue to draft later round DB’s, don’t develop them and hope the front 7 gets constant pressure on the QB? That works sometimes but more and more offenses in the NFL use spread formations and dink and dunk passing which is a big reason why the Steelers defense seems to struggle more and more in pass coverage.

I honestly don’t think the problem is with the players. When you look at the long list of DB’s drafted since 2003, combined with a number of FA signings, and it’s clear the problem lies elsewhere, unless you choose to believe that the Steelers are simply the unluckiest team in the NFL when it comes to drafting and signing FA DB’s. As has been mentioned previously, there is a big problem on this team with actually developing secondary players. I remember when both Willie Gay and Bryant McFadden showed a lot of potential very early in their careers. Both players have progressively gotten worse, why is that? Troy, by far the best player in the secondary, mostly relies on his natural ability as he lines up all over the field to confuse the opposing QB, it’s hard to argue that is largely because of development. It’s simply allowing arguably the best defensive player on the team to do “what he does”.

In the end I believe the problem is two fold – Development (or lack thereof) and Lebeau’s long standing and legendary zone blitz defense. Most teams have figured out that if they throw the ball quickly and use short, easy patterns, Lebeau’s defense can largely be neutralized. And the thing is most teams run that kind offense anyways in today’s NFL (“The dink and dunk”). Lebeau’s defense still works very effectively as long as the above doesn’t happen. But good luck with that as the NFL quickly is becoming a spread, dink and dunk kind of league. It’s time for the Steelers to adapt – Tweak the man coverage, use more of it and less 10 yard DB cushions on the WR, allow the DB’s to get more physical with opposing WR’s at times. This will in turn aid in the development of the DB’s, making them better in man coverage and defending the pass, since they will be asked to actually do that more often. This will in turn cut down on some of the poor pass defense that we see way too much these days with this defense. With Lebeau’s current defensive schemes and philosophy, it’s hard to fault the DB’s for not being great in defending the pass since they are hardly ever put in a good position to do so (“keep it in front of you, keep it in front of you!”).

But don’t expect this to happen while Lebeau is still the DC. Lebeau strongly believes in the “bend but don’t break” philosophy. Allow the other team to get yards but in the end stop them from getting in the endzone. While this may sound like a safe and sound philosophy, in recent years this has actually proven to be a pretty dangerous philosophy and we have numerous 4th quarter meltdowns in pass coverage to prove it. When the other team decides to exclusively air it out in a spread formation this defense tends to find itself in big trouble. Hopefully Lebeau starts the see the light and as a result decides to mix up the coverages more and allows for a more aggressive philosophy at times. It can’t be worse than what we’ve seen at times in recent years.

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