27 forced fumbles.
That’s 76 times they handed the ball back to Ben and said, "bet you can’t turn it into 7, 7." That’s 70.5 times they forced an out and won the field position battle, or woke up the crowd, or forced a beautiful 3-and-out, or…
And that doesn’t touch upon the records they made along the way, or the rankings acquired, or the countless times the naysayers were proven wrong time and time again.
That’s what Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Brett Keisel, and Jason Worilds gave the Steelers over their careers, and it doesn’t just stop there. It’s guys that could equally tell you what it’s like to be a top draft pick and all the hype, hyperbole, and pressure that comes with it, and tell you what it takes to scratch and claw your way onto the roster, only to earn the title of project, and have to put your faith and trust in your coach that you can succeed.
The point? It’s experience, it’s leadership, it’s plenty of both, and it’s gone. It’s also a part of what has haunted us this preseason, and what could be our greatest obstacles moving forward.
Much- very much- has been said about our secondary, the experiment of the cover-2, the gaping holes we have seen on film, and the less-than-stellar quarterbacks that we have made look like the second coming of Montana during the preseason. Speaking with some of the coaches I work with (one of which coached the aforementioned Worilds), a large part of the cover-2 that gets overlooked is its most simple and most difficult aspect: it requires reads and responsibilities, and that’s the learning curve.
Forget the fact we have players that have done it with another team or in college. That’s like saying a college system runs a pro-style set so their playmakers are pro-ready. It happens sometimes, but not always. It is a system predicated on speed and aggressiveness where players read the pass play- within their responsibilities of course- to compromise or jump routes and leave the offense little territory to work with. That’s where experience comes in. Dungy always laughed when "his" defense was called Tampa-2, as he credited Bud Carson, who in turn said it worked because of the veracious line, talented DB’s, and the football IQ of Jack Lambert.
From that mindset and stats aside, Gay is our best DB. I’m not saying that from a statistical perspective, but from an experiential one. Allen has experience, but we can all agree his confidence has to be shaken slightly. Boykin in new. Shark is a new starter, and we have witnessed his growing pains more often than we would have liked. Mitchell is experienced but not necessarily within our system, which he has even admitted during his first year. Then add in the injuries. The others can fall into the unproven category.
And don’t forget the linebackers. The leadership on the defense, in my opinion, would start with Harrison, Heyward, and Timmons. Heyward is a lineman. Harrison has seen limited action and never was labeled a coverage linebacker. Law Dog has been sidelined. So where does that leave us with experience?
It’s not wholly the scheme, or the experiment, or the quality of the player- certainly they are a part of the story, but not the be-all-end-all. A large challenge for the defense will be the experience and leadership within a system that requires both, and we have witnessed that this preseason to the point where some are scratching their heads while others reinvent Chicken Little. And let’s not forget Dick LeBeau knew a thing or two about secondary play. Imagine if we include his achievements to the above? Yes, you can make arguments concerning quality players and quality play, or attack the draft, or the coaching. However, a part of it is when there is a breakdown, a missed assignment, whatever, who on the field immediately can see it and step up to tell the other about it in the huddle. That's where we are lacking the most.
We aren’t bereft of leadership, but we are lacking it where it has been needed the most to translate into production. With experience comes knowledge, and with knowledge comes performance. That will lead to leadership and understanding among all. I don’t think we should write off anything as a failed experiment or idea, and certainly not the defense as a whole.
We are Steelers fans. January is what matters most, and any experienced player on the roster would likely agree.