As one of the greatest defensive minds in the history of organized football, evidenced by a Hall of Fame career spanning 56 years as a player and coach, Dick LeBeau certainly left his mark on a franchise traditionally known for having a top defense. In fact, as defensive coordinator, LeBeau led Pittsburgh to five seasons in which they finished as the NFL's top defense
On Saturday it was announced the Steelers and coach LeBeau mutually agreed to part ways, with Pittsburgh's immediate future seemingly falling into assistant Keith Butler's hands while LeBeau's future in the NFL is decidedly cloudy.
Despite past successes, the Pittsburgh defense struggled throughout each of the last three seasons, none more than the 2014 campaign. While the brunt of a playoff failure can't fall entirely on the shoulders of one side of the ball, it's an undeniable fact the Steelers defense was leaky and undisciplined, missing countless tackles and allowing big chunks of yardage. Had it not been for opportune forced turnovers in several games, the defense could've potentially proven to be the bane of the 2014 Steelers.
Although Pittsburgh will move forward with a different man wearing the headset, the defense still has many questions that need to be addressed. One of the poorest pass defenses in the league was the dual result of poor pressure applied to opposing quarterbacks (their 33 sacks ranked 26th in the NFL) and giving up large chunks of yardage (15 plays of 40 or more yards, second most in the NFL). The Steelers very quietly were the sixth best statistical run defense in the league, but those figures could partially be inflated due to teams' insistence on testing a leaky Pittsburgh secondary.
Fortunately, the Steelers have some nice players on defense, highlighted by DE Cameron Hayward and MLB Lawrence Timmons. Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier will look to rebound after frustrating beginnings to their respective careers, but each player was a first round draft pick, so potential still remains. Stephon Tuitt, Steve McLendon, Sean Spence and Vince Williams all look like nice players.
The Steelers, however, could potentially lose four members from LeBeau's former championship caliber teams, as Ike Taylor, Brett Keisel, Troy Polamalu and James Harrison could all be gone in 2015. Jason Worilds, one of the top players currently on the roster, could be shown the door as well, as the salary he demands as an unrestricted free agent could prove too steep for the Steelers to manage. Even Arthur Moats, a nice fill-in player, enters the offseason as a free agent.
LeBeau has been criticized over the past several years for the performance of the defense, given the disparity between the Steelers of now and a seemingly unbeatable unit that finished No. 1 in total defense as recently as 2011. Realistically, the Steelers are a couple years away from being considered a top defensive unit again, and at 77-years old, LeBeau is getting too old to wait around for that day.
The future is encouraging though, as blueprints set by teams like the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers have shown championship caliber defenses can be built in only a few seasons. The Steelers have the fortunate circumstances of having as close to a fresh start as possible, with several players almost assuredly leaving and LeBeau moving on to greener pastures. Whoever coaches the defensive side of the ball in Pittsburgh in 2015 will have the luxury of undergoing a bit of a rebuilding process, teaching a young defense full of new faces how to play Steeler football.
With a strong defensive draft class waiting and several young players with potential already rostered in Pittsburgh, perhaps a fresh start is just what the defense needs to become great once more.