In the spring of 1981, not many folks were paying attention to the San Francisco 49ers. Bill Walsh was still unknown and unproven, the team was coming off a 6-10 season and the Vegas odds to win the '81 Super Bowl (which they did), 50-1, were not exactly making people take notice. One might assume that Walsh was preparing to load up his West Coast Offense in the NFL Draft. He did the opposite. Walsh took three defensive backs in the first three rounds of the Draft, one after the other, namely Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson. He took another corner, Lynn Thomas, in round five. Within hours he completely revamped his secondary. Walsh was smart enough to understand that as soon as he unveiled his new offense, it wouldn't take long for film to get around the NFL. He also knew that 500 miles down Interstate-5 in San Diego, another offensive passing explosion was being deployed, started by Sid Gillman and passed on to Don "Air" Coryell. People remember Walsh, Montana and the West Coast Offense. What is little-known is that in 1984, the entire 49ers defensive backfield made the Pro Bowl, the only time that feat has ever been accomplished in NFL history.
Walsh was an assistant coach with the Cincinnati Bengals in 1977 when a monumental rule change would alter the course of the NFL's offensive focal point. Known as the Mel Blount Rule, after the Steeler's Hall of Fame cornerback, the rule prohibited defensive players from chucking receivers beyond five yards from the line of scrimmage. Prior to 1977, the passing game took a backseat to the running game in the NFL. Passing was much less reliable with defensive backs having their way to disrupt pass patterns. A good passing game complemented the essential running game. You could score points quickly by passing if you were behind in a game and needed to score often. After 1977, a good running game complemented an essential passing game. For those of you old enough, it was like Johnny Carson and sidekick Ed McMahon switching seats on the Tonight Show. Enter Air Coryell and Walsh's West Coast Offense. By drafting three defensive backs in 1981, Walsh was wisely stocking up on the antidote before he unleashed the poison. He knew that he could die by the very sword he would show others how to use.
Sure enough, permutations of the Blount Rule's offspring branched the passing game even further. Jim Kelly's K-Gun offense and Warren Moon's Run-and-Shoot morphed into Kurt Warner's Greatest Show on Turf and the beat went on. Meanwhile, as the passing game kept showing new wrinkles, the running game, with no new wrinkles available, declined proportionately. Moreover, it became critical for the lone back who remained in the offense to be able to catch passes out of the backfield. Not only did a running back essentially get replaced by an extra receiver, the remaining back was asked to do more receiving. This is not a knock on the running game. It comes down to the simple fact that offensive genius lends more options to create new passing innovation than running innovation, which basically can't be improved from Lombardi's power sweep or Noll's trap-block running. It's the nature of the weaponry. A tank is a tank. Give me four airplanes and the sky is the limit (pun intended).
Before I offend good old fashioned Steelers' fans who dream of smash-mouth football, Jerome Bettis running over Urlacher, imposing our will and winning the mud battle, let me state here that it is extremely important for a team in Pennsylvania, playing on the worst surface in the NFL, with crucial Division games in December, to effectively be able to run the ball. We saw the Steelers eat nine minutes off the clock in the AFC Championship Game before the Jets' offense took the field with a seven-point deficit. We remember Bettis consuming valuable clock while Peyton Manning stood on the sidelines at the great upset of 2005, and then again with five minutes left in that year's Super Bowl. An effective running game is invaluable when needing that third-and-short conversion and especially on the goal line. Make no mistake, I am not suggesting that the Steelers downgrade their running game or the advantages thereof. To the contrary, the better it is the better we are.
What I am suggesting is that the Steelers take a page from Bill Walsh's 1981 book and stockpile the antidote for their kryptonite. Having the third-best run defense in modern history will win you a lot of football games against poor-to-good quarterbacks, but it will be very difficult for the Steelers to win another championship against great quarterbacks, with the weakness of their team being just what those great quarterbacks want to face. The likes of Brady, Manning, Brees and Rodgers couldn't care less about Pittsburgh's legendary run defense. In fact, they pretty much cry uncle in that category while shredding the secondary at will. Tom Brady may as well hire a skywriter to fly overhead with a sign that says, "Hey Pittsburgh, we're not going to run and it's not going to matter." It is no aberration that that last three teams to win the Super Bowl failed to gain 60 yards rushing, an alarming statistic that would make John Facenda roll in his grave. It pains the smash-mouth purists to think that the last three Super Bowl winners, combined, rushed for the same yardage as Franco Harris did alone in Super Bowl IX.
Since the 2006 NFL Draft, there have been 78 defensive backs chosen in the first and second rounds of those five Drafts. Thirty-one of the NFL's 32 teams have taken (or traded for) at least one of those players. The lone NFL team not in that mix is the Pittsburgh Steelers. Twenty-four teams, three-quarters of the league, have selected more than one defensive back in the first two rounds of the last five Drafts. Moreover, the seven teams selecting just one blue-chip DB have also added a key free agent, something else Pittsburgh has not done (since Ryan Clark). Interestingly, the two teams with the most of those 78 defensive backs, five apiece, are the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints. I guess when you have Tom Brady and Drew Brees, elite quarterbacks in prolific passing offenses, you had better understand the necessity of shielding against your own strategies.
I am not implying that the Steelers have erred with this omission (we have been to a few Super Bowls); though it does stand out when you are the only one of 32. (It pains me every time I think of the 2007 Draft where the Jets leapfrogged Pittsburgh to grab Derrelle Revis.) What I am implying is that multiple upgrades are needed, right here and right now. Maybe not to the extent of Bill Walsh '81, but pretty darn close. The options are as follows:
- Re-sign Ivan Taylor.
- Be confident that Crezdon Butler or Keenan Lewis can become a Tramon Williams-type, who also didn't start in his first three years.
- Draft a corner or safety in the first two rounds, even if it means moving up to get an impact player.
- Sign a free agent defensive back who is an upgrade over what we have.
The Troy Polamalu component is another interesting factor in the equation. To begin with, Polamalu is like an expensive European sports car - beautiful performance when all the parts are in tip-top shape, but anything less renders him a Chevy Malibu. The stronger the entire defensive backfield, the more the Steelers can absorb a less-than-perfect Troy. In addition, better cornerbacks allow Polamalu more freedom to use his instincts and make signature plays. When Troy is busy covering for cornerback shortcomings, his impact is greatly diminished. The Steelers can add two birds with one stone by upgrading their cornerback situation. Improving one position actually improves two, by allowing Troy to be Troy.
During last year's offseason, Art Rooney issued two simple mandates to Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin - run the ball more efficiently when we have to, and get the young players ready quicker. The Steelers improved in both those areas. I'm sure that each of us dreams from time to time that we could be Art Rooney. I do, and if I were, I would hand the above list to Colbert and Tomlin and tell them to make two or three of the items happen. Demanding all four is overkill, but I would insist on two or three. Sure, we have other areas of concern. The lines on both sides of the ball are always a concern. But if I am Art Rooney, and maybe someday in some heaven I will be, I am walking around the complex every day with that list above and I am talking to my people about making things happen. If the Steelers go at it with a hearty degree of resolve, this team will be as good as any to win a Super Bowl in the next couple years.