Want to know something weird? I HATE articles like this. Every week someone is on ESPN or writing an article on the "5 Keys to winning this week's matchup." And every time they say the same things: get pressure on the QB, don't turn the ball over, make splash plays on defense and special teams. Well duhhh! You can say that about any team at any time. It's not like you're wrong. If the team wins you can say they listened to your advice, if they lose they clearly didn't. I'm looking for something a little more specific. The aim of this article is do dig a little deeper into what exactly the Steelers should be doing that will hopefully bring success this Sunday and for the rest of the season.
1. Steve McLendon starting at NT
This is one that many Steeler fans have begun clamoring for, but many may not have considered the other implications of such a move. Beyond the on-field effects of having a younger, more athletic NT, this would send an important message to the entire team, young and old. The defense has not been up to par since losing the Superbowl, there's no denying that. Younger players on this team need to seize the opportunity for a larger role. But for them to seize the opportunity, the opportunity needs to actually be there. The coaching staff has seemed to adopt a "wait your turn" approach to developing young players. The theory has been that with a veteran-laden group, young guys would serve as backups and special teamers while they soak up all they can from the veterans. Eventually, the veterans will retire and open a door for the young players. However, I think the message should now be "take your turn."
McLendon has been brought up in classic Steeler fashion, spending 2 years on the practice squad and a 3rd buried under Hampton and Chris Hoke on the depth chart. He steadily improved year to year, and game by game toward the end of 2011. This preseason, he saw an opportunity with Hampton rehabbing and took full advantage, dominating in both practice and scrimmages. However, his path was blocked when Hampton was handed his job back without question. Playing time should be viewed as a precious commodity, neither guaranteed nor given. If the coaches show that they're willing to pull veterans who might be playing below the standard, it should motivate young players to work harder in pursuit of more playing time, as well as motivate veterans to work harder to not lose it.
2. A Deep Shot at the End Zone in the 1st Quarter
For as concerned as I am about the defense, I am equally not concerned about the offense. So what if the run game is doing poorly? The Packers and Giants have won championships behind their elite QBs and we have the tools to be that type of offense. Ben has never looked better than in the last 3 games, proving he can carry the offense without any backfield threat. Ben has picked apart defenses little by little, and I can only assume credit goes to Haley for helping Ben refine this part of his game. Not to mention, both rookie offensive linemen really excelled with their run blocking, so I expect that to improve whenever they can find their way into the lineup.
That said, the offense has only one play of over 30 yards this year. The offense has instead worked its way methodically down the field with long drives. I think there will be an opportunity for an early big play on the Eagles' defense. If I'm Todd Haley, I'm calling a deep pass not to Mike Wallace, not to Antonio Brown, but to Heath Miller. Philadelphia's safeties look like the weak spot on that defense, and with Heath's growing reputation as a redzone threat, I think covering him deep is going to be the last thing on their mind.
3. Mystery and Deception from the Defense
Ryan Clark's comments last week that the defense has been predictable and relying on execution rather than deception were extremely disturbing to me, and probably should have gotten more attention from Steelers fans. First of all, with the two best defenders sidelined, it should have been assumed that the one-on-one battles were not going to be won as frequently as we've grown accustomed to. Coach Lebeau should have done more to disguise the coverages to make up for the deficiencies of backups. Clark's comments lead me to believe that Lebeau has been trying to make his players fit his system, rather than tailoring his system to fit his players.
When I think of the Steelers' 2008 defense, I remember seeing 7-8 guys at the line of scrimmage, most of them standing up and moving around. When the ball was snapped, at least half attacked the QB while the others dropped into coverage. No one knew where the pressure was coming from. But when I see this defense, Woodley and the linemen are rushing the QB almost all the time, and Timmons and Foote are almost always in coverage. From what I can tell, Lebeau has tailored the defense around Troy Polamalu a bit too much. It seems that the rest of the defense is taught to let Troy freelance, and adjust to what he does. He is the only source of mystery that the defense relies on, and the rest of the defense has become bland and predictable. Its easy to see this when Troy is not on the field. However, even when he is on the field you can see it. In Denver, all Peyton Manning had to do was locate Troy, call a hot route to wherever he wouldn't be, and exploit someone else. If the rest of the defense were half as unpredictable as Troy is I think we would see him making more of the plays he used to.
4. A Modified "Big Nickel"
The Steelers unveiled a new formation in Week 2 vs the Jets, aptly called the "Big Nickel" package. According to Dick Lebeau, it was designed to combat both the lack of depth at outside linebacker and the propensity of teams to try to run on the normal Nickel defense. The Big Nickel took both outside linebackers off the field in favor of an extra defensive lineman (Heyward) and cornerback (Allen). My first thought when I saw this was, "Where is the pass rush?" Taking Woodley off the field at any point seems like a bad idea to me. I understand why they did it because of the injuries at outside linebacker; but with Harrison looking likely to play this week, we can afford to make some adjustments.
First and foremost, I would put Harrison and Woodley back on the field. That should significantly help the pass rush, and both are great against the run as well. Second, whereas the normal Nickel would bring in Cortez Allen in favor of the NT, I would bring him to replace Larry Foote. It would essentially be a 5-1-5 alignment. You'd have the defensive linemen from the base package, Harrison and Woodley off the edge or just as easily dropping into coverage, and the defensive backs in coverage with Troy more than likely playing close to the line of scrimmage. This along with some well timed blitzes like I suggested previously should bring some excitement back to this defense.