On the Steelers: Who needs defense anymore?

Sunday, January 15, 2012
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey is a good cornerstorne for any future offensive line, but they have to do better than Chris Kemoeatu and Ramon Foster.

The playoffs resumed this weekend with the possibility of a historic matchup in the Super Bowl pitting the NFL's worst two defenses.

Yes, No. 32 Green Bay vs. No. 31 New England.

And where is the No. 1 defense? Home, after losing for the first time in the playoffs to a team without a winning record, a team with the No. 23 offense and No. 20 defense.

The Steelers had the No. 1 defense in 2011, stingiest in the NFL in allowing both points and yards, although its puny 15 takeaways should call for an asterisk.

The lack of takeaways not only hurt the defense, it probably helped hold down an offense that ranked a respectable 12th in the NFL in yards produced but tied for a lousy 21st in points scored. Turnovers help produce points, and the defense did not help as it did in 2010 when the defense/special teams captured 35 loose footballs in one manner or another.

The question posed for 2012 then is this: Is defense relevant anymore? If a team has a great quarterback and a high-powered offense, can it overcome just about any deficiencies on defense the way the Packers (No. 3 offense) and Patriots (No. 2 offense) have done, the way the New Orleans Saints (No. 1 offense, 24 defense) have done, the way the New York Giants (No. 8 offense, 27 defense) have done?

It is beyond time we scrap half of this cliche: "Offense sells tickets, defense wins championships." The second part does not hold true anymore in the NFL, where offense wins games, wins championships and, most importantly, turns on more television sets than ever.

This may be the time for the Steelers to rethink how they approach the makeup of their team. Instead of spending their money on defense, it might be time to build up the offense, which the NFL keeps creating rules to encourage.

They have the quarterback and seem to have the receivers and the backs. Now, they must find better talent for their offensive line and maybe a second tight end.

It's hard for many of us to keep a straight face when it's suggested the Steelers have a capable offensive line. Oh? They tried two different combinations at the most important line position, left tackle, in 2011 before they threw up their hands and reluctantly re-signed Max Starks, who has never been one of the coaches' favorites. He started a few days later in the fifth game of the season and stayed there right through his ACL injury in Denver.

They suddenly decided that Chris Kemoeatu, after 31/2 years as their starting left guard, was no longer good enough. The coaches also decided that their starting right guard from 2010, Ramon Foster, wasn't good enough to keep the job, but then he was good enough to start the final 14 games, including the playoff loss in Denver.

It's a mess, and they need to straighten it out, which they have started doing in the draft with center Maurkice Pouncey and tackle Marcus Gilbert the past two years.

Ben Roethlisberger turns 30 this year and needs to stay upright more often as he ages. His injuries this season are one reason the Steelers are home watching playoff football on television today.

Roethlisberger won't like this, but he also needs to change his approach. He has been the best quarterback at extending plays and making plays when he does. However, wouldn't it be nice if he could just complete the pass without all the drama? You know, with a quick release to one of those quick and speedy young receivers who can then do their thing after the catch?

It's not asking much. Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers do it. It is understandable that Roethlisberger resists it when the media mentions it because he has been largely successful doing it his way. He and Bruce Arians love to go deep, but with Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and, if they use him more, Heath Miller, the Steelers have the kind of skill that can torture defenses with shorter passes, along with the deep threat that is Mike Wallace.

With those receivers, there is no excuse for only 10 teams scoring fewer points than the Steelers did last season. Another reason for that was their so-so play inside the 20, where quick decisions are mandated. The Steelers ranked 18th with a touchdown rate of 50.9 percent once they cracked the red zone, coming away with 27 touchdowns on 53 trips.

The New York Jets somehow were No. 1 at that (perhaps, they would have been 4-12 had they been in the middle of the pack), but No. 2 was New England, 3 Green Bay, 6 New Orleans and 8 the New York Giants.

Had the Steelers been as successful inside the 20 as the Patriots (65.3 percent), they would have scored eight more touchdowns. That comes to at least 32 more points, and it might have won them a few more games, including the one in Denver when they reached the Broncos' 27 and 20 in the first quarter and kicked field goals both times. Not technically the red zone, but the same issues.

On to the backfield.

Rashard Mendenhall has a torn ACL that needs surgery. Before the injury, he was a boom-or-bust back who was said to be a breakaway threat even though he broke away for only three gains of more than 20 yards last season.

Isaac Redman equaled that in the final two games alone. Mendenhall had three 100-yard games. Redman and Jonathan Dwyer combined for two, counting the playoff. Redman deserves more time and carries, even if Mendenhall heals perfectly and is ready to go at next season's start. Redman fits more for what the team needs and maybe even wants. He's not just a short-yardage back, and he has proven that time and again. He replaced Mendenhall in Cleveland and ran for 92 yards on 19 carries (4.8 average). He ran for 121 in Denver on just 17 carries (7.1).

At best, the halfback duties in 2012 should be split between the two. Mewelde Moore is a free agent and rookie Baron Batch, who missed the season with an ACL tear, could replace him. Jonathan Dwyer and John Clay seem to be capable backups.

The Steelers also need to find a second tight end, one who primarily blocks, to free Heath Miller to showcase his receiving ability for when Roethlisberger alters his style in 2012 with that new quick release he always has had in his arsenal but has been reluctant to use.

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