The notion that rookies cannot succeed in Dick LeBeau's much vaunted defense is a popular one.
The theory goes that the defense is so complex, so nuanced that rookies are not capable of learning and executing the playbook to an acceptable standard. This has I believe become a source of pride, misplaced or otherwise, for many Steelers fans.
Running paralell to this narrative is the idea that a lack of playing time in the past for rookies has had little to do with the need to strip down and rebuild prospects (most notably on the defensive line) or the complexity of the defense, it is because the Steelers already had extremely talented incumbents at nearly every position, making playing time for rookies very hard to come by.
In an article posted today via Steelers.com, Bob Labriola made it clear which theory he bought into.
Labriola touched on the obvious fact, that a once proud and even legendary defense over the last 10 years has plummeted down the rankings, and in 2013 finished 25th in sacks and 29th in inteceptions.
He then argued that the Steelers rookies are likely to see a lot of snaps this year because there is simply no one there to beat them out of playing team like there has been in the past.
Remember when the accepted narrative had to do with defensive linemen needing considerable seasoning before they were ready to play in the Steelers’ 3-4? That they had to learn to do it the way the Steelers wanted it done, and sometimes that required a year or two of study and practice?
Was that it, or was it the presence of Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton and Kimo von Oelhoffen and Brett Keisel? Do college pass-rushers actually require a long apprenticeship before they can handle the job of outside linebacker in the Steelers’ 3-4, or was it because the top of the depth chart at their position always seemed to be manned by people like Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene and Chad Brown and Jason Gildon and Joey Porter and James Harrison?
Labriola acknowledged that LeBeau's defensive scheme is complicated, indeed that all NFL offense/defensive schemes are complicated out of necessity. However he believes that games in the NFL are decided more by the one-on-one physical battles that take place all over the field than they are by strategy or clever adjustments.
The importance of dominatiing the one-on-one battle requires that a defense field its best 11 players whenever possible, and for the Steelers that rarely meant a rookie. Not when players like Casey Hampton and James Harrison roamed the field.
But now of course, things are different. There is virtually no position on the Steelers defense that can be considered locked down, save perhaps for Timmons ILB position and a healthy Polamalu's safety spot.
There is a lot of expectation that first and second round picks Stephon Tuitt and Ryan Shazier could see a lot of playing time, perhaps even a starting spot. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau seems to agree.
"Sometimes in the past, we’ve been in a position where our draft choices don’t necessarily have to play for a year or so...That is definitely not the case in this situation. Both of these players – Shazier and Tuitt – if all develops as anticipated, are going to get a lot of playing time."
What characterises this draft class more than anything is hope. Seemingly legitimate hope that a number of these players can step in immediately and help an ailing team that has went back-to-back seasons at 8-8. That hope is particularly acute for the defense, a unit in disrepair which has long been the source of pride for Steelers nation.
As Labriola says, "In the NFL, the best players will play. It just so happens that this year the Steelers are going to need a number of their draft picks to be their best players."