Bumped. Good to hear from good old Bad Maafala. Plenty to discuss here in his post about the development of the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense, and how Dick LeBeau changed his tactics against Tom Brady this time around. Thanks to him for the post, and to the rest of you all for writing such a high volume of interesting, conversation-starting posts and comments lately. -Michael B. -
I haven't posted on the site as much as I used to, partially because I actually do work at work now, and partially because it's hard to type when you're holding an infant and a toddler. Well I'm in SoCal by myself now with a day to kill, so here I am.
There was plenty to get excited about in the Steelers' 25-17 Week 8 win over the Patriots. The offense proved it can dominate a bad defense for a full game (not 1-2 quarters like usual), but it was the defense that excited me the most when looking forward to the remainder of the season.
No matter how complex your zone blitz schemes, you have to be able to mix in man coverage in order to beat elite passing teams. In the past, we've either largely avoided man coverage or played it poorly. Today was another matter. What I saw was all our CB's at the LOS jamming the WR's, and continuing to be physical with them down the field. Yes that's illegal, but the refs didn't call it very tightly, and you have to cheat a little to beat cheaters. Seriously, that's exactly how the Pats shut down Manning so many times, and it's a nice thing to have in your defensive arsenal if the refs are letting you play.
So did LeBeau just realize that he doesn't have to play a 3-deep zone? If not why haven't we pulled off this defense in the past? Did we keep it hidden just to pull it out for the Pats?
I think it's a combination of some different things. LeBeau does like playing cover-3 and stuffing the run, perhaps to a sub-optimal degree at times. Mainly though, I just don't think we had a CB that could line up opposite Ike in that scheme. Gay's small and slow and better suited for the slot, Bmac doesn't have enough quickness. What I think we're seeing is a) an acknowledgment that we need to integrate some man concepts into our defense against passing offenses and b) an increasing confidence in Lewis and surprisingly, Allen.
Before I get to the young guys, it has been said plenty elsewhere, but Ike Taylor is having an amazing year. He's Asomugha without the hands. He's played press coverage a lot more this year, and our defense is the better for it. Lewis has been steadily getting better all year, and I'm fairly sure he's the 2nd best CB on the roster at this point. The deep pass to Ochocinco was an example of great coverage: get in front of the WR, locate the ball, use your body to shield the ball from the WR. He can still get beat underneath, but downfield coverage is what separates him from Gay and BMac. It was interesting that Allen got so much playing time. It may be that they felt we was a good physical matchup, or maybe he has actually passed Brown on the depth chart. In any case, this defense doesn't just hand out playing time to young players, so him getting some without a mass of injuries is a good thing. It wasn't a great performance, but it was better than Gay managed last year.
A side effect of playing press-man coverage is that it doesn't require young players to learn all the complex reads typically required of CB's in LeBeau's defense. In cover-3, a CB has to keep his WR in front of him, be aware of other WR's and make sure they don't sneak behind him, all while supporting the run and having some presence on shorter passes to his side. That's a lot to ask of a young player, and it takes a good bit to earn LeBeau's trust. On the other hand, these CB's have been playing man defense since pee-wee. It's not easy to cover an NFL-caliber WR, but it's not complex, either. You don't have to worry about the running game or other WR's, which lets talented young players play instead of think. As players get more experience they can integrate into the rest of the defense. This is largely how Green Bay was able to be so good last year with 2 very young CB's.
Shifting topics a bit, our DL is shaping up nicely, and it's getting more clear where they stand. Keisel has been outstanding when healthy, and Heyward has both kept Keisel fresh and been a force himself. He provided some crucial interior pressure today. Hampton looked good (and fresh) in limited playing time, and Hood was solid as well. We haven't been dominant against the run, but I'm starting to believe we're on our way to fixing those problems. I feel better about a post-Smith DL than I did a month or two ago, which is good, considering nothing I talked about above matters next week. Joe Flacco sucks. He’s very adept at handing the ball off and he throws a decent deep ball when he gets a minute or two in the pocket. The Ravens are better than the Cardinals, but they got awfully lucky in the second half today. Just about every deep ball was either caught or DPI’d. This game will be all about holding up the point of attack, maintaining gap integrity, and tackling Ray Rice. If we can do that and get anything productive out of the offense, we’ll be in good shape. This would be a good game for Harrison to return…