During the previous off-season I begged the Steelers to improve the cornerback situation (The Importance of Shopping at the Corner Market). I did not think they could win a championship, in this era of prolific passing, by winning 10-to-12 regular-season games and then getting torched in the playoffs by one of the fantasy quarterbacks who have become their daddy - guys named Brees, Brady, Manning and Rodgers.
The Steelers didn't exactly overwhelm me with cornerback hopes in the 2011 Draft. The first two rounds were allocated elsewhere. They did, however, use the third and fourth rounds to pick Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen. While Brown was used exclusively on special teams, and quite productive I might add, Allen had his moments as a defensive back, but still too young for major impact.
Pittsburgh led the league in pass defense this past season, but Brown and Allen weren't legitimate reasons. The number one reason was the obvious shift in philosophy by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. The soft-cushion, sure-tackling coverage that is good enough to lead to an impressive regular-season record, is not good enough to beat the fantasy quarterbacks in January and February. LeBeau's philosophical shift to a tighter, riskier coverage scheme was a wise decision for the most part.
The second reason for the Steelers passing defense crown was the acquisition of secondary coach Carnell Lake. Lake had the unique background of being a Pro Bowl player at both corner and safety. Lake brought that blend to the table and it showed on the field. The Steelers secondary often looked like interchangeable parts, and that was a good thing. Many times it looked like there were five or six Carnell Lakes on the field, not knowing which were cornerbacks and which were safeties. Opposing quarterbacks also took notice and in fact, had trouble with their counter-moves.
The third reason for Pittsburgh's improved secondary was the accelerated play of the incumbent personnel. Ike Taylor had the best year of his under-rated career. Many argued that he was the team's MVP. Willie Gay, the traditional whipping post of the secondary, made many more significant plays that brought smiles to Steeler Nation, with far fewer bad plays. Keenan Lewis finally looked like he could be a player. Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark never looked better. When three or four people improve in a five-person unit, the improvement of the whole is dramatic. It could also be concluded that reason number three (accelerated play of incumbent personnel) might have been the byproduct of reason number one (philosophical shift in coverage schemes) and reason number two (Carnell Lake's contribution to the soup). In any case, the total synergism of all three reasons produced a massive upgrade to Pittsburgh's defense. This upgrade should spark optimism in the Nation for better days ahead. The NFL's offensive video-game performances are not going to go away soon. Instead of being kryptonite, the Steelers defensive backfield might continue to grow into the antidote.
Why then, with such improvement and optimism, did the Steelers not win their division and not win two playoff games like they did a year ago? The reason, and I hate to use Bill Cowher's favorite cliché, but it is resoundingly true, is that there is such a fine line in the NFL between Super Bowl Champions and teams that do not win playoff games. In the case of the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers, that fine line came down to one horrible game, one horrible drive, one horrible plan and one horrible play.
The horrible game, of course, came in the opener against Baltimore. There is no point in analyzing that game to glean anything positive. Every player and every coach was horrible. That happens in the NFL, but when it happened to the Steelers against the Ravens, it became the harbinger for a season-long chase in which the rabbit never did get the carrot. Pittsburgh fans were teased when the Chargers beat Baltimore on a Sunday night to open the door, but with half of Ben Roethlisberger traveling to an outstanding San Francisco team, that door was shut the following night.
The horrible drive, of course, also happened against the Ravens, this time in the re-match. Pittsburgh had 92 yards to defend in order to reverse the opening debacle. The Steelers gave up only 2,751 passing yards all season, more than 200 fewer than the second-best passing defense and more than 2,000 fewer than the defending Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packer defense. But in the NFL, like life, timing is everything. The timing of those 92 yards against Baltimore changed the outcome of the season. I mumbled to Mary Rose that we were going to regret that drive for a long, long time. Being good overall can be deceiving when you're not good when you really need to be. In ironic retrospect, the strongest part of the Steelers' defense was the weakest part at the very moment when it was needed most.
The one horrible game and one horrible drive was the difference between being the number one seed in the AFC, with home field advantage and a valuable week's rest for a banged-up veteran team, and a five-seed limping into a mile of altitude without the league's most underrated safety. Not a good time (there's that "timing" thing again) to concoct your worst defensive game plan. The Steelers put two field goals on the board before Denver gained a first down. On their third possession, the Broncos were faced with a third-and-12. In an absolute critical moment of the game, a moment when Denver was on the verge of knowing that its previous three games produced the real Broncos, Tim Tebow hit the first of his long passes that gave his team life, brought the crowd back into the game and with another 30-yard pass later, gave Denver the lead. They would never trail again.
The Broncos scored all three of their touchdowns by completing four passes for 200 yards. The game plan called for the same tight man coverage that conquered Tom Brady earlier in the season. In fairness to the defense, Pittsburgh's offense played brilliantly against New England and basically kept Brady off the field. Still, Tim Tebow is the anti-Brady. He is incapable of dinking and dunking you down the field with long drives. The Steeler defense of 2010 and prior, playing soft and requiring numerous precision passes to score a touchdown, would have beaten Tebow. Remember, that defense almost always beats poor-to-mediocre quarterbacks, of which Tebow is clearly a member. Tebow was accurate 10 times the entire game. He would have needed to be accurate 10 times in just one drive to score just one touchdown. Moreover, it is likely that somewhere along the way an errant or deflected pass would have landed in the arms of a Steeler defender who was playing behind the receivers.
The gamble to play the same defensive scheme against Denver as New England was one which cost the Steelers to at least live another day. On that other day, Bill Belichick did not repeat Pittsburgh's mistake and with a far inferior defense, made Tebow-mania a passing (or should I say non-passing) fad. The Patriots didn't need Brady's six touchdowns passes. Two were enough. I often say that hindsight makes geniuses of the cowards who use it, and far be it from me to critique the great Dick LeBeau, but New England's defense of guys milling all over the field was far more effective against Denver than Pittsburgh's plan to put everyone on the line of scrimmage like the starting line at the Boston Marathon. Once again, the strongest part of the Steelers' defense was the weakest part at the very moment when it was needed most. That timing thing again.
Which finally leads to the "one horrible play." With all 11 defenders stretched across the line, Denver needed just one play to end Pittsburgh's season in overtime. It was the second time in a decade that Pittsburgh lost a road playoff game in overtime without touching the ball. Despite adding another chapter to the many stories of heartbreaking playoff losses in Steelers' history, optimism will still be aplenty going into the 2012 season. It is built in to the psyche of Steeler Nation. But when looking back at the story of 2011, we will always be reminded of that ultra-fine line in the National Football League. 2011 will forever be titled, "one horrible game, one horrible drive, one horrible plan and one horrible play."