It's become a ritual every January to discuss the future of Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
It's fair criticism. Pittsburgh's defensive DVOA, as measured by Football Outsiders, from 13th in the NFL in 2012 to 19th in 2013, and 30th this season. They had 33 sacks this season along with 11 interceptions and 14 forced fumbles. They had 34 sacks, 10 interceptions and 19 forced fumbles in 2013, and in 2012, 37 sacks and 15 forced fumbles.
The Steelers are ranked 25th and 29th in sacks and interceptions, respectively, since 2012. It used to be easy to give LeBeau and the Steelers' defense a pass; interceptions are a byproduct of positioning and catching the ball, and sacks will come with the more pressure applied.
The last three years hasn't been a stream of issues with defensive backs hanging onto the ball, or loads of quarterback hits just as he delivers to his target. There are legitimate concerns with the general lack of consistency in these key areas.
Yards allowed is becoming less prevalent to defense today. It's about takeaways and sacks. While fumble recoveries are generally seen as slanted toward whomever the ball bounces, the lack of interceptions in a passing league is a legitimate concern. The Steelers have run out of reasons outside of a general lack of pass rush as well as an inability - strategically planned or otherwise - to intercept the ball. That's the main cause of takeaways today, and it simply isn't happening.
Who's accountable for that?
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin would likely put it on himself, which is fine. He also likely knows being accountable to the media is a bit different than being accountable to his bosses. If his bosses want a change, a change will happen. That could be with the removal of LeBeau from his position.
On the positive side, LeBeau is not directly responsible for the free agent signings or the draft selections. He coaches the players he is given - as is Tomlin, even though Tomlin likely has a bit more input into the drafting and signing decisions. While the Steelers' defense hasn't been a high-level group, judging the team from where it was after Week 4 in 2013 compared to after Week 17 of 2014, there's a shocking turnaround in terms of execution. The Steelers allowed just 17.5 points a game over their last four, which they essentially needed to win in order to qualify for the postseason. If LeBeau is to be savaged for the breakdown against New Orleans (the league's top yardage offense in 2014) in Week 13, credit must be given to the turnaround that followed.
Perhaps the best example is of second-year linebacker Vince Williams. Thrown into the fire as a rookie, LeBeau was forced to use an inexperienced and overwhelmed sixth-round pick in lieu of the team's defensive signal caller as the result of an injury occurring in Week 1. There was no prep time (a hole in the team's depth certainly not the fault of LeBeau) for Williams, he had to learn a huge amount in a short amount of time, and the trickle-down effect on the defense saw a general decline over the course of the season.
Williams was considerably better in 2014, and while no one's voting for his All Pro candidacy, coaching has more value in making the weak links stronger than making the ultra-talented into high-level players.
There are pros and cons to both sides, and if LeBeau is to be called out, position coaches should be as well. The complete meltdown of cornerback Cortez Allen will be a factor in Tomlin's determination of his 2015 coaching staff. The team will not release him just one year into a five-year deal, and the depth chart at the end of the 2014 season does not matter for 2015. You can bet Allen will be given first-team reps at the start of training camp, and it's not unfair to suggest perhaps defensive backs coach Carnell Lake's seat is getting warm - provided he did not give a satisfactory offseason plan to revitalize Allen's suddenly sagging career.
It's perhaps more rhetorical to wonder if Allen is capable of getting past whatever issues he had (just from observation, it appeared more of a lack of confidence as the season wore on) and getting toward where the team saw him going when they signed him to an extension last summer. If he does, however, and William Gay is capable of continuing at the level he's heading (easily the team's best cornerback). It's possible to re-sign Brice McCain on a relatively inexpensive deal (if he makes that interception late against Baltimore, the Steelers have a decent chance of stealing that game late), it's a decent, not outstanding, group of cornerbacks. The draft is still there to help solidify depth for the future.
Should LeBeau be given those leaps of faith, though? That's what this really comes down to. The production can be argued to a degree, but, as Tomlin would say, when the rubber meets the road, it's about production. And that production hasn't been great. With the young career of 2014 first round pick Ryan Shazier ground to a halt due to injuries and a lack of comprehension this season, along with the budding careers of Stephon Tuitt and Daniel McCullers, as well as the high-level performance of Cameron Heyward and Lawrence Timmons, the team is at a crossroads on the defensive side of the ball.
Is LeBeau the man to bring this group up another two steps this coming season? With an offense capable of scoring at a high level, but still entrenched in the win-now-before-something-happens nature of athletic endeavor, the Steelers are only thinking of what's best for their team when weighing their decision.
Wasting the franchise's best offense with a defense that cannot hit the quarterback and take the ball away consistently seems to be against the notion of bringing the team back to a championship level.