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Did Steelers' Defense Finally Reach its "Tipping Point" of Schematic and Personnel Versatility?

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In Ralph Paulk's "Inside the Lines" column in Monday Morning's Tribune-Review, there was a short item about the coverage schemes LeBeau deployed in the Pittsburgh Steelers 25-17 win over the New England Patriots Sunday afternoon. Paulk quoted Keenan Lewis as saying:

"We used our dime package because those guys can score at will. We definitely knew we could guard those guys. I feel we have the best receiving corps in the league, and practicing against those guys prepared us for this game."

In the comment thread of maryrose's Monday post titled, "Ten Observations About The Steelers' Win Over New England," a reader that goes by the name Yount said the following: 

For some reason it took LeBeau eight games to finally press cover. It seemed pretty obvious watching Brady walk all over us that this was needed. Whether our defensive backs had the talent or not is debatable but it could not have hurt to give it a try against Brady over the years.

Homer J. responded:

And do you really think they could have run tight man coverage last year with a hobbied BMAC and last year’s versions of Gay and Lewis? 

These three comments started me thinking about some of the possible reasons that it took so long for the Steelers to play New England differently. Here are the possible explanations that I've arrived at:


  1. The coaching staff was convinced that the fire zone scheme should be sufficient for any situation, assuming that everyone executes properly. (In other words, Dick LeBeau was too stubborn/old-fashioned/insert pejorative term here to see that his scheme was no longer all-sufficient. This is, I assume, Yount's position.)

  3. Dick LeBeau saw the need for such a scheme change, but didn't really have the personnel. Since the Steelers build almost exclusively through the draft, it is going to take a few years to effect a change in the people you bring in, due to a combination of the limited number of picks you can assign to that need and the time it takes to develop them. (This is, I assume, Homer's position.)

  5.  Dick LeBeau saw the need for such a scheme change and had at least some of the necessary personnel, but he didn't have the right DB coach. (This would be the Lake Effect theory.)

  7. And finally, maybe some or all of the above are true to some extent, but they don't explain the whole story. Maybe the key is found in Keenan Lewis' statement above. Perhaps it isn't simply a matter of drafting the right guys and coaching them the right way. Maybe they also have to have the right people to practice against..

And this brings me to the real point of my article, which is my speculations on whether there has to be sort of a "tipping point" in a team or a unit before it can substantially change and improve.

But first, let me define my term. Here is how Malcolm Gladwell, the author of the best-selling book "The Tipping Point," explains the concept: 

It's a book about change. In particular, it's a book that presents a new way of understanding why change so often happens as quickly and as unexpectedly as it does...

Before I went to work for The New Yorker, I was a reporter for the Washington Post and I covered the AIDS epidemic. And one of the things that struck me as I learned more and more about HIV was how strange epidemics were. If you talk to the people who study epidemics--epidemiologists--you realize that they have a strikingly different way of looking at the world. They don't share the assumptions the rest of us have about how and why change happens. The word "Tipping Point", for example, comes from the world of epidemiology. It's the name given to that moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass. It's the boiling point...

[O]nce you start to understand this pattern you start to see it everywhere. I'm convinced that ideas and behaviors and new products move through a population very much like a disease does. 

How it is that teams that typically draft at or near the top of the draft can stay so bad for so long? And if they begin to improve, why is it generally not in a steady upward path? Perhaps part of the key is also part of the key to yesterday's secondary success. 

But first let me get this disclaimer out of the way. I expect that most poorly performing teams have problems with their ownership to a greater or lesser extent. Is the ownership smart enough to hire good people to run their franchise and coach their team and do their scouting and then stay out of their way? (Some owners are qualified to be involved in certain areas of their operation. Which doesn't neccesarily mean that they should be.)

The many good things that Steeler Nation has enjoyed over the last 40 years stem from this foundational principle. It seems that the Rooneys have chosen their staff with care and have not interfered with them unduly, and I'm not trying to downgrade the importance of that. Part of what derives from this foundational principle is that you aren't going to make a great many hiring gaffes, because you have delved below the surface and not necessarily chosen the "obvious" candidate. 

But I think it is possible to have reasonable ownership and a good coaching staff and some very talented players and yet struggle to field a good team. That's where my theory comes in. Perhaps one has to reach a sort of "tipping point" of good players (and coaches, for that matter) in the right positions to help raise the level of the organization. Because it seems to me that so many of these situations are a sort of chicken-and-egg question.

To illustrate, let's look at an offense. You can have an incredible receiver that is very difficult to defend, like, say,Calvin Johnson, but if he hasn't got a sufficiently gifted QB to make reasonably accurate throws, there is only so much he can do. And if you have a very gifted QB, but not a sufficiently good enough O line to give him sufficient time to throw, then it doesn't matter how good he is, because it is pretty hard to make throws lying on the ground. Or you can have a good QB and a good line but receivers that drop half of what you throw to them, and you're going to struggle. And if you do have one or two amazing skill players but insufficient talent surrounding them, they can be rendered ineffective by the opposing defense. And although you probably have a reasonable number of the pieces of the puzzle, you have to reach a certain critical mass, or tipping point, before it comes together as an effective offense. And part of the reason for that is the issue of who you have to practice with, and against.

And to return, finally, to the original meta-question, does this also explain why a team like, say, the Lions can be bad for so long while picking near the top of the draft? Of course part of it is due to coaching, scouting, and so on, but I would argue that you have to accumulate a certain minimum of playmakers, and at that point the pace for improvement accelerates much more rapidly than would seem to be natural.

Look at the progression. In 2007 the Lions drafted Calvin Johnson at No. 2 overall.  In 2008 they lost 16 games. In 2009 they drafted first overall and picked their QB. They chose wisely. They won 2 games. In 2010 they chose second overall and drafted Ndamukong Suh at #2 and Jahvid Best at  No. 30. (They made so many trades that it must have taken a full-time accountant to work them out.) They chose well. They won six games.

In 2011 they picked at No. 13 and chose Nick Fairley. They seem to have chosen well. And suddenly they have won six of their eight games and look like a very serious contender in the NFC. This is a great deal more than the incremental change that seems most intuitive. They were being projected to have a winning season, just about, (7.5 - 8 games) by Las Vegas. Of course, there were outlier predictions that had them going to the Super Bowl (Peter King, for example) but I think that few impartial observers would have been willing to put a lot of money on the Lions being 6-2 at the half point if they had to do it at the beginning of training camp.

They may, of course, implode. They still have to play the Packers twice, and the rest of their schedule is not a pushover by any means. And Stafford could get injured again. But I think you can make the case that just a few too few playmakers will come up short of the sum of their parts, and a sufficient number add up to more than seems reasonable. We can see that the progression of wins, as demonstrated by their draft position, is not linear at all: 1, 2, 13, and wherever they end up this year. Where you can really start to see the tipping point clicking in is during 2010. Four of their six wins came during their last four games. 

And this brings me back to Keenan Lewis' remark, and to yesterday's game. Tom Brady had been the victor in six of the seven previous contests between him and Dick LeBeau's defense, dating back to 2004. Since the Steelers don't necessarily play the Patriots every year it is understandable that at first a sense of urgency might not be there. There might be the feeling that it was a fluke, or a failure of execution. Even if it costs you the 2004 AFC Title Game.

But as the losses pile up, it's hard not to start to consider that it might be a systemic problem that has to be faced, especially when you see other teams beginning to have some success by imitating the Patriot's blueprint. In other words, it isn't just one person that can beat you that way.

But having decided this, the question is, is this possible to do with your current personnel? And if not, how long is it going to take to re-train, re-work, or replace your current personnel? It's not like you can just go in, sweep out everyone, and hire all new people. Nor would you want to if you could, because obviously the system you have in place has been successful against many opponents, and is possibly more successful against some opponents. While you aren't replacing the system wholesale, you are definitely adding a major component to it.

So you begin with the draft to take people you think can help you. It is striking how many DBs the Steelers have taken in the last few years, between the draft and free agent signings. In 2009 they drafted two corners, Keenan Lewis (2nd 3rd round pick) and Joe Burnett (5th round pick.) They also signed a UDFA safety, Derrick Richardson.

In 2010 They drafted Crezdon Butler in the fifth round. (Rather ironically, he was one of the Steelers' three compensatory picks that year. The pick was compensation for Bryant McFadden leaving in free agency the previous year.)  They also used the fifth-round pick they had received from the NY Jets for the Santonio Holmes trade to trade with Arizona for Bryant McFadden and a sixth-round pick. (With that sixth-round pick they chose Antonio Brown.) UDFAs they signed included safeties Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith and Justin Thornton.

In 2011 they drafted Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen in the third and fourth rounds, and picked up two UDFAs— CB Niles Brinkley and safety Brett Greenwood. They also signed CB Donovan Warren, who had been drafted in 2010 by the Jets and later released. 

During this three year period, the Steelers had 25 draft picks. They chose 5 DBs (1/5 of the total picks,) traded for another, and signed at least six UDFAs.  (If you're wondering why they had so many draft picks over these three years, here's how it breaks down: 2009—traded out of the second and fourth rounds, picked up an extra third, fifth, and sixth round pick. In 2010 they had three compensatory picks and the above-mentioned wheeling and dealing.) In other words, they kicked the tires on a lot of guys. 

You have a bunch of new guys. But you also have some old guys that are accustomed to the system you already have in place. And yes, you do play some man coverage, but you want to start moving towards the possibility of using a more defense-wide, aggressive press coverage at least some of the time. So you need two things—someone to coach them in this style of play, and receivers to practice against. You solve the first problem, you hope, by hiring a new DB coach that is known to have played that way. But you have to practice with the receivers you've got. 

And, very fortuitously, suddenly you have a group of fast, quickly developing receivers upon which your shiny new DBs can practice their skills. It cuts both ways, because as your DBs improve in this area they are going to give your receivers a chance to work on their methods for defeating DBs that play press coverage. If you didn't have a group of speedy, increasingly elusive receivers for your DBs to work against, the DBs are at a disadvantage when they encounter them on other teams.

So does it seem like this explains part of what we saw yesterday? Who beat the DBs? Mostly the one freak on the team, Rob Gronkowski. (He had three times as many yards as any of the receivers except Welker, and had more than twice as many as Welker.) He's crazy fast for a guy his size, which seems to be about twice that of most of the DBs. To illustrate the problem one only has to look at the picture of Troy riding on his back as he keeps moving down the field. 

One of Tomlin's favorite quips during Ravens week is "iron sharpens iron." I agree with the concept that playing other good teams help you to improve, but more to the point I think it applies to the other players on your team. 

So maybe Dick LeBeau isn't overly stubborn. Maybe he's just patient enough to wait for all the pieces to be in place before he started trying to seriously alter the defense. Because there's nothing more annoying than getting into the stage of a building project where you've torn everything up and realizing that you've run out of money, and will have to live with a mess and without, say, a kitchen, for some time to come. Perhaps LeBeau is smart enough to count the cost and get all of his ducks in a row before he starts a complete overhaul.

I think that the overhaul happened this season for two reasons. The first is that the New England game last fall and the Super Bowl loss convinced LeBeau that the time had come to jump. And he could do so because, this season, the critical combination of DBs, coach, and receivers were finally in place. Because of the lockout and the reduced practice time due to the new CBA, I'm guessing that the "tipping point" has only come rather recently, and the new-look defense was finally ready to be fully unveiled last Sunday. 

At least that's my theory. I'd love to hear your thoughts.