View Full Version : Steelers defense tries to match superlative 2008 season

09-06-2009, 10:31 PM
Steelers defense tries to match superlative 2008 season

Sunday, September 6, 2009
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsbu ... 41815.html (http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/steelers/s_641815.html)

It probably wasn't as stirring as his annual reading of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" at the Steelers' holiday party. But defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau no doubt had his players' attention the first night of training camp when he addressed the 2009 season.

His message? The Steelers' defense has an encore in it even if it may be unrealistic to think it can be better statistically this season than in 2008 when it finished first in the NFL in scoring, rushing and total defense.

"Coach LeBeau told us when we first met, 'People say you finished first in a lot of categories. There's really nowhere to go but down,'" veteran defensive end Brett Keisel said. "But he thinks we can get better, and that's what we're trying to do. If each of us gets better then we should be a better defense."

Such a prospect should have opposing offensive coordinators reaching for Maalox, as well as extra game film of the Steelers in an attempt to solve a defense that allowed just 223 points (13.9 per game) last season.

What makes their job as daunting as ever is that in an era of salary-cap restrictions and fluid rosters, the Steelers' defense returns largely intact.

It lost just two starters from last season, and the Steelers may have upgraded at right inside linebacker with Lawrence Timmons, who has future star etched all over him, taking over for the departed Larry Foote.

William Gay replaces Bryant McFadden at right cornerback. But Gay made such strides in his second year that by the end of the 2008 season he and McFadden, who signed with the Arizona Cardinals last March, were rotating anyway.

"Our defense is unique because it starts from the top," said Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who practices against the first-team defense on a regular basis. "Coach LeBeau is unique. It really helps us because it gives us looks we may never see."

Soft spots hard to find

Asking LaMarr Woodley the best way to attack the Steelers' defense probably isn't advised in the week leading up to a game. But in early August, with the start of the regular season still more than a month away, the outside linebacker seemed willing to oblige his inquisitors outside of the cafeteria at St. Vincent College.

Woodley, however, couldn't come up with any answers, even with his knowledge of the Steelers' personnel as well as the inner workings of LeBeau's mind.

"I guess you've got to get us with a trick play every now and then," Woodley said.

He paused and then added, "Well, we don't even fall for those."

The vulnerability of the Steelers' defense is not unlike the proverbial needle in a haystack: There is a chance it can be found, but only if there is enough time.

Complicating such a proposition is the pass rush led by Woodley and James Harrison. The two combined for 27 1/2 sacks last season, and Harrison proved to be particularly hard to block on the way to NFL Defensive Player of the Year Honors.

When asked if he expects opposing offenses to make adjustments when it comes to the relentless Harrison, Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler said, "I'd approach him a different way. I'd have approached him a different way last year after I looked at the film."

The presence of Woodley opposite Harrison makes teams think twice about constantly double-teaming the latter. And as confounding as LeBeau's schemes can be he continually keeps quarterbacks guessing as to where the extra player is coming from in his famed zone blitzes -- what makes the Steelers' defense just as formidable is the physicality that has long been its signature.

"Run the ball, we're going to hit you," Woodley said. "Pass the ball, we're going to hit you. I never get tired of hitting quarterbacks."

Key is in the Cards?

The Cardinals may have provided a blueprint for countering the Steelers last February when Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald and Co. had the NFL's No. 1 defense on its heels, particularly in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIII.

Warner and Fitzgerald hooked up for pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns, and the offense had to bail out the defense in the final minutes of a riveting game that ended with the Steelers claiming a sixth Lombardi Trophy.

The Cardinals employed quick drops by Warner, who finished with 377 yards passing and three touchdowns, to neutralize the Steelers' pass rush. And they exploited the Steelers down the field with Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, perhaps the top wide receivers duo in the NFL.

"That's always the success I had when I played against 3-4 defenses," said former NFL quarterback Warren Moon, who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "Spreading them out, getting those linebackers in space where they may have to cover people and then get rid of the ball quickly.

"I don't think (the Steelers') linebackers are great cover guys. They're great pass rushers, they're great tacklers, great pursuers to the football. But I think if you can spread them out, that's not something they want to do with that 3-4 front."

The problem for most teams is they don't have a passing attack as potent as the one Arizona trotted out against the Steelers. Also, LeBeau is a master innovator who spent the offseason making changes to counter the expected adjustments teams will make against the Steelers in 2009.

"We're always going to have some different looks, some different combinations, something that's not in their film laboratory," said LeBeau, who is entering his 51st NFL season as a player or coach. "They'll have to see it and analyze it from 2009."

Opposing teams "are going to score"

No matter how much opposing coaches analyze the Steelers' defense, it is next to impossible to account for All-Pro strong safety Troy Polamalu, who lines up just about everywhere on the field except directly over center.

And the Steelers' front three of Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Keisel regularly controls the line of scrimmage. That allows what is arguably the top linebacking corps in the NFL to roam free and make plays.

That is not to say the Steelers' defense is impenetrable.

It is vulnerable to the pass when a seasoned quarterback gets time to throw, and age is encroaching on a unit with six starters that will be 30 years of age or older at some point during the season.

Also, the losses of Foote and McFadden may have compromised the depth, to some degree, that the Steelers had on defense a year ago.

"People are going to score points," starting free safety Ryan Clark said. "These other guys get paid, too. We just play hard, run to the ball and hit. Obviously we don't have the best players because not many of us go to the Pro Bowl."

Clark's tongue-in-cheek comment referred to the number (three) of Steelers defensive players who were voted to the Pro Bowl last season, which didn't reflect how dominant the unit was.

But one of the more overlooked reasons for the Steelers' success on defense is how coach Mike Tomlin and LeBeau have the players buying into the system and checking their egos at the tunnel before they take the field for games.

"We talk about how hard we play and knowing where we're supposed to be," LeBeau said. "It's never Steelers beating Steelers. We're going to make them beat us."

Or try, anyway.