The Steelers defense: Jekyll or Hyde?
Posted by Chris Patterson
To the surprise of many, the Pittsbugh Steelers held the Cincinnati Bengals to only one long drive. It came right at the beginning of the game and seemed to portend issues for the rest of the game. At the end of the night, though, the defense had given up around 180 total yards. After half-time the Bengals only accumulated two first downs. This isnít a team that is exactly offensively inept. Andy Dalton has averaged around 280 passing yards per game and AJ Green is being talked about as being among the best wide receivers in football. However, Dalton was held to 105 yards passing with Green only catching one pass. That one pass was a touchdown, unfortunately. Ike Taylor, who had been highly criticized coming into the game (and rightfully so) only gave up that one completion, and even then he had nearly perfect coverage. On some plays you donít screw up, the other team just makes a perfect play. This was an example of that.
So, the Steelers defense held the fort, giving up 17 points, of which seven were gift-wrapped by the offense, to a team averaging around 23 points. This would be the Jekyll of the Steelerís defense coming through. They were pressuring Dalton all night (who did not have many sacks against only because he was getting rid of the ball in about two seconds) and competing for every play. While the run defense looked a bit porous at times, they were able to sure that up as well. This is the same defense that showed up against the New York Jets and, to a lesser extent, Philadelphia.
Confusing, quick, powerful and overwhelming.
Unfortunately, the Steelers version of Mr. Hyde has reared its head on several occasions this season, too. Most notably giving up over 30 points to a very mediocre (thatís putting it kindly) Oakland team, and letting Tennessee and Denver take over in the fourth quarter of their games. In the games featuring Mr. Hyde the Steelers are 0-3. When Dr. Jekyll takes the field the team is 3-0. Itís not a hard formula to crackÖwhen the defense is giving up lots of yards and big plays late, the team loses. When they are overwhelming and stifling they tend to put up a win.
Disclaimer: A certain amount of criticism can be placed on the offense, for certain. But the offense has been more consistent to this point of the year even though it seems as though the offense is only a couple of plays per game from blowing this wide open.
So, what is causing such a change of pace for the defense. Why does the defense show up one week ready to dominate and the next looking like a unit ready to break? There are a lot of factors throughout this question, and the answers will probably reveal a lot about what can be expected of them for the rest of the season. Between old age, injuries and unique situations, there seems to be some explanation for most of the issues plaguing the defense.
As to injuries and old age, this can go hand in hand many times. Either players arenít on the field, or when they are they are theyíre not at 100%. In the three losses the team was without Ryan Clark (not injury related, but the result is the same) and James Harrison. In addition, Casey Hampton was playing on an ACL he had torn in Denver eight months previous. Even if Hampton was healthy enough to play, there is no way he could have been at his normal strength level. Against Tennessee and Oakland the Steelers were missing Troy Polamalu. James Harrison also missed the Oakland game and Lamar Woodley missed the Tennessee game. Thatís three of the Steelers best four players (Timmons is in there somewhere as well) missing games. Also, until Tennessee, Casey Hampton seemed to be a shell of his former self, often getting pushed around by a single blocker as opposed to the double teams he normally required. In the Tennessee game he started looking a bit better and against Cincinnati he was sometimes drawing double teams and being a bit more disruptive than he had in previous games.
These injuries and old age lead to two things; players whose stamina is not at its peak and a lack of depth leading to starters playing more than they should, and backups playing more than they should as well. That would certainly make sense for why the later in the game it is, the more porous the Steelers defense looks.
However, I think the injuries and old age are playing less of a factor and the bigger factor has been unique situations (sometimes the injuries and old age goes with this).
In Denver the Steelers faced off in Mile High against a highly motivated Peyton Manning, an ultra-competitive, ultra-talented quarterback whose ability to play was being questioned. The Steelers took the field without James Harrison and Ryan Clark, two guys who could have made a big impact. Realistically, Peyton Manning was not going to lose that game.
In Oakland, the Steelers traveled to the West Coast. This is something the Steelers have not done well with in their history. It doesnít make a lot of sense, really. There were no truly mitigating circumstances in this game beyond that. However, given the Steelers inability to win when traveling to Oakland regardless of the quality of the Raiders team, there must be some reason this team struggles so mightily playing in Oakland more often than not (and when they donít struggle, they blow them out). This game was more likely a combination of the old age and injuries.
Against Tennessee I think the combination of injuries and old age on a shortened week caused the majority of the defenseís problems. Give an older team less time to heal, and this is the result.
This isnít to make excuses for the Steelers. Being injured and old is not an excuse, itís a fault. The Steelers inability to adjust to certain situations is not an excuse, itís a fault.
However, if these can be pointed to as the driving causes of their overall failings, it should help to determine if the team is on pace for another good season or if they are likely going to flail from here on out. Overall, the Steelers defensive results will probably continue to improve overall. Itís unlikely Oakland would score 34 on them again. However, this defense is filled with injury liabilities: Troy Polamalu, Lamar Woodley, Ryan Clark and to a lesser extent James Harrison are all injury liabilities. If the Steelers defense fields an entirely healthy roster even once this season, it would be surprising. However, the situational oddities should be over. Monday night games should put little strain on the following week when compared to a Thursday night game, and there are no more Thursday night games on the slate. Also, the only other long trip is to Dallas, which should not be a terribly tough road to travel.
Overall it would probably be fair to conclude that the Oakland game was just a bad game for the Steelers. Those games happen. The Denver and Tennessee games, though, seem as though some steam behind tough situations and injury issues. If the Steelers can start seeing themselves on the field rather than the trainerís table then they have a chance of looking like the Steelers of old. However, that is unlikely and will probably result in at least a few more uneven games from the Steelers defense over the course of the year. It probably is fair to say the defense will play poorly enough to lose at least 5 more games this year. What remains to be seen is if, for a change, the offense can carry a Steelers team over those speed bumps.