Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE
There’s a new sheriff in the AFC North, and it will be fascinating to watch how the Baltimore Ravens handle their long sought success. There’s no doubt it will cost them plenty, not just in terms of new contracts for the players who secured the franchise's second Lombardi, but also in terms of the players with whom they elect to part ways.
But now that the Ravens Super Bowl victory can be considered "so last season", Steeler Nation turns its collective minds and hearts to the questions that must be answered and the decisions that must be made if the Steelers are going to extricate themselves from the salary cap morass the team finds itself in, and recover from a pedestrian 8-8 season.
The Steelers face a myriad of player decisions in the upcoming months. SteelCityRoller has published a great series of articles outlining the serious issues surrounding the entire roster in meeting projected $120.6 million salary cap, complete with salaries, bonuses and the monetary implications of cutting players or restructuring contracts.
Along with the salary considerations however, come other ramifications of the decisions the Front Office must make for each player. For today, the focus is on the defense.
One commenter, A_Smitty56, hit the nail on the head when he recently asked in response to a comment about Will Allen replacing Troy Polamalu in the secondary:
"But...That was with reliable Keisel, Hampton, Taylor, and Harrison on the field most of the time. How is Allen going to do when they are gone and replaced by Heyward, McLendon, Lewis and Worilds?
Will the Steelers be able to continue with the scheme they currently run under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau? The Steelers' entire defensive scheme is predicated on its three down linemen controlling the line of scrimmage and stopping the run; its two OLBs are tasked with either covering receivers across the middle or penetrating the line of scrimmage and pressuring or sacking the quarterback. The two corners and S Ryan Clark are tasked with covering the receivers to give the linebackers time to reach the quarterback, while Safety Troy Polamalu is...Troy Polamalu.
For years he has been the wild card ace up LeBeau's sleeve; quarterbacks never know exactly what he's going to do, whether blitz or drop back in coverage. Ryan Clark has been the perfect complement to Polamalu's style, but age and wear and tear have marked these aces and the Steeler's defensive hand is easier to predict as a result.
Polamalu is a once-in-a-generation player, and the defensive scheme that has grown up around him cannot be expected to continue just by plugging in the next man up such as Will Allen.
So which end of the defense do the Steelers address first: the front three, or the back four, or the outside two in the middle?
And whichever of these three areas the Steelers address, what are the implications for the other two?
Do the Steelers have someone in Steve McLendon who can replace Casey Hampton and continue the Steelers' defensive dominance against the run? Should our defense continue to be predicated on that concept, given the pass-happy, fantasy-football-feeding nature of the NFL today? Multiply the consideration given to these answers by having to consider the same for Brett Keisel's presumptive replacement Cam Heyward.
Just as it appears the Steelers' offensive line is getting smaller but stronger, could we expect to see a change in scheme played by a svelte McLendon as compared to the massive gap-filling Hampton? Will the Steelers shift the mission of its front three from stopping the run to creating havoc along the LOS?
Assume that stopping the run remains the primary mission; will the smaller sized front three require more involvement in basic blocking and run stopping from the linebackers? If so, doesn't that limit the ability to blitz LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons or, who...Larry Foote or Sean Spence?
And if the mission becomes creating havoc, won't that mean the defense may give up more running yardage, thus shifting the focus of the OLBs from the quarterback to the running back? Or will the increased havoc create new opportunities for LeBeau to send in a faster Worilds or Stevenson Sylvester in place of James Harrison? And what of Harrison? He'll be 35 this year, and as SCR has pointed out, his impact on the salary cap is significant. Harrison is a prideful man who has had injuries and the omnipresent threat of future sanctions from Goodell hanging over his career the past several years. Forced to choose between a substantial pay cut, or being released, Harrison might well make good on his previous threat to retire.
Or, maybe it will be the secondary's role that will have to be changed. If the dynamic duo of Polamalu and Clark can no longer perform as they once did, or are (or eventually will be) replaced, the entire tenor of the Steelers' secondary will be changed, reliant upon actual coverage of the receivers without the blitzkrieg threat of Polamalu or Clark to disrupt the play. If quarterbacks and offensive coaches no longer have to game plan around the Steelers' safeties, and the linebackers are more focused on supporting the front three to stop the run, will this aspect of LeBeau's fire-zone blitz become a thing of the past?
Sean Spence was drafted because of his demonstrated intelligence and ability to read plays quickly and find the runner. Assuming he returns to his pre-injury state, how does his play mesh with what might happen to the front three? If there is increased reliance on the middle linebackers to support the front three in stopping the run, where is the coverage across the middle? If from the OLBs, then where is the pressure on the QB to come from, which is as stated above, such an integral part of LeBeau's defense?
The issue facing the Steelers is not just the salary cap, or just which player may be overpaid based on ability to perform, but rather how the decisions that must be made this off season impact compliance with the salary cap which impacts what personnel will take the field which impacts the defensive scheme; these three aspects all tangled up together form a Gordian knot of a problem.
Up to now it appears the Steelers have been putting off making these types of decisions, or addressing them independently of each other in their effort to retain the core of players who took them to three Super Bowls. As a result the impact of addressing these issues in this way is being magnified. If they continue to try to cobble together solutions in this way, the impact will only worsen.
But perhaps, and one would hope, in their collective wisdom Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert will view these intertwined complex issues not as something to be further deferred or picked at, but instead will, in the spirit of Alexander the Great when confronted with trying to solve the puzzle of the Gordian knot, simply took out his sword and cut it in half. It will take such creative thinking to bring about the coming of the Third Steeler Dynasty.