Hall of Fame player and coach Dick LeBeau used to preach one fundamental truth with his defenses.
Make the opposition one-dimensional.
This typically meant the Pittsburgh Steelers defense would stop the run, and force teams to move the ball through the air, if they could.
This philosophy has been tested throughout the years, and while every LeBeau defense hasn’t been the top defense in the league, and hasn’t won every game, it is still an approach almost every NFL defense still deploys on a weekly basis.
The Steelers still try to do it, even though LeBeau hasn’t been a part of the team for almost a decade. The key word in the previous sentence was “try”, and in 2021 I think you could have typed the sentence as follows:
The Steelers failed to do it.
Last season the Steelers were wrecked with injuries to Tyson Alualu and the absence of Stephon Tuitt. In their stead, the defense called upon newcomers like Montravius Adams and rookie Isaiahh Loudermilk to fill the voids. As you can imagine, the results varied.
When the dust settled on the 2021 season, the Steelers ranked dead-last (32nd) in rush defense. This would be the opposite of the fundamental philosophies LeBeau once preached to a proud defense.
“The standard is not last year,” Inside linebacker coach Jerry Olsavsky told media. “The standard is years previous, a Top 10 run defense, that’s the standard.”
While fans bemoaned the team’s inability to stop the run, it wasn’t as if the players and coaches were happy with their production, or lack thereof.
“We’re all upset,” Olsavsky said.
As for defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, he realizes the team has to move forward and look ahead to 2022, but it doesn’t mean he hasn’t thought about that porous defense in 2021.
“The team has turned the page, I haven’t.” Dunbar said. “Giving up the yardage we gave up last year was probably a first in my career.”
Many wanted to point the finger at one aspect of the team for the failures in the run defense department. Maybe it was Tuitt’s absence, or Alualu’s injury. Either way, the coaching staff knows stopping the run isn’t a one-man job.
“Stopping the run is a seven-man or an eight-man proposition up front,” Olsavsky maintained.
If there was one statistic from 2021 which showed how bad the Steelers’ run defense was, it was the fact Minkah Fitzpatrick led the team in tackles. Having your free safety having to make that many tackles is never good for business.
“It obviously starts with the front, having a healthy front,” Fitzpatrick offered. “Having a dominant front, a physical front is going to help us.
“Pushing the line of scrimmage on the offensive side of the line of scrimmage is gonna be big. It’s something we lacked last year just because of our depth.”
Most would say the Steelers’ depth is better in 2022, at least on paper, but whether they get the job done won’t be decided until Week 1 when the Steelers travel to Paul Brown Stadium to play the Cincinnati Bengals.
Until then, the defensive line competition might be one of the most hotly contested battles in training camp which is set to kick off on July 26th at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, PA.
“Me as a coach, I’m looking forward to all this competition, these guys trying to get better and help us be a better defense.” Dunbar said.
If the Steelers can improve their run defense, which it can’t get statistically worse than 32nd out of 32 teams, it would impact every facet of the defense. The secondary would be able to do their primary job in coverage, and the pass rush also would benefit.
But that is a big if.
Hopefully the Steelers can right the proverbial ship this season, and in the meantime be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they press on throughout the offseason.