The Pittsburgh Steelers’ identity as one of the NFL’s most successful franchises was built on the back of some of the finest defenses the league has ever seen. Tough, physical teams that were almost impossible to run the ball on. In an era when the running game was still king, Pittsburgh would often go weeks, months or even years without giving up 100 yards rushing to an opponent.
Sadly, that’s far from the case with the current version of the Steelers’ defense, and the group that will take the field in the 2018 regular season is still struggling to grasp a fundamental skill crucial to the unit’s overall success — the ability to tackle.
Their problems in this area aren’t new and have been well documented during the past few years. Anyone looking for an example of the Steelers’ deficiencies in this respect need only study video of the Steelers’ recent playoff defeat at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars. According to Pro Football Focus, Pittsburgh missed 16.1 percent of their tackles against the run in 2017, a number that ranked them 31st in the league.
Coaches and players alike have been open in acknowledging this issue, but little seems to have changed through two preseason games, despite added focus on tackling during training camp this year. Joe Haden confirmed this in an interview with Teresa Varley for Steelers.com:
“A lot of it is ‘want to.’ We do a lot of drills in individuals, wrapping up, keeping our eyes up, hands around, wrap tackle. Not just dive at peoples legs. We drive it out a lot. In our 11-on-11s, we make sure we end with it. Even if you are not going to take him to the ground, get in position, back hip, get yourself in position to make the tackle. We always finish at the ball. When we do individuals, we are doing five, maybe six individual drills making sure we wrap up, keep eyes up and make sure we are using proper technique.”
While some might wonder how so many players on one defense could have made it to the professional level without learning this basic skill, the veterans on the roster like Haden hope their own efforts in camp might inspire the younger players.
“We are staying on people. The thing with me, Cam, guys like that we have to lead by example. All of the drill work we are doing, I am making sure I am at the front of the line, finishing all of the tackle drills, making sure I am wrapping, making sure I am using the proper technique. In 11-on-11, making sure I am running to the ball, tagging off on the low hip. When we have the live tackling you have to get him on the ground and show him what you can do. They put us in a lot of different positions to make plays. You practice it and make sure you get in position.”
It had been hoped that the addition of veterans like Morgan Burnett and Jon Bostic would provide a little more consistency, but it’s been disappointing to see Bostic struggling with his tackling as well.
Having emphasized the problem throughout the offseason — so far seemingly with no effect — it’s fair to wonder how much the reduced practice time a team has with its players is to blame for the breakdown in this fundamental skill. It could be argued the desire to limit physical contact at both the collegiate and professional levels has prevented the younger players from developing their tackling abilities.
Nevertheless, the tackling issue is more pronounced for Pittsburgh than for other NFL teams, and it might be fair to question the traits the team looks for in their draft picks to see whether that has any bearing on their predicament. The coaching staff is far from blameless in this matter as well, especially when you consider how long this issue has persisted.
It sometimes feels like the Steelers are — to paraphrase Albert Einstein — insanely doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. But if time spent in practice isn’t producing the desired results, perhaps it’s time to consider some further changes either to the coaching staff or player personnel on defense.