They’ve fallen from No. 1 to No. 12 in total defense, but he number that really gnaws at the Steelers this season is 11. That’s how many plays the Steelers have surrendered of more than 50 yards.
“Very frustrating,” strong safety
“It’s surprising both ways, like, ‘How can we give up this much this year?’ But it’s also like, ‘We were really good back then.’ I didn’t know we were that good.”
In eight of those seasons they’ve finished No. 3 or higher in rushing defense. In six of those seasons they’ve finished No. 1 in at least one of the three major defensive categories (rushing, passing or total defense). In four of those seasons they’ve finished No. 1 in two of the three major categories.
The numbers tell a different story this season.
The Steelers are an uncharacteristic No. 12 overall, No. 7 against the pass and an unrecognizable No. 24 against the run.
The scheme isn’t being blamed by those playing or coaching.
The Bengals’ current coach was the linebackers coach under Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh in 1992. Cowher, Lewis, defensive coordinator Dom Capers and LeBeau, then the Steelers’ defensive backs coach, put their heads together and came up with what the Steelers are still running.
“It’s Coach LeBeau’s defense, no question,” Polamalu insisted.
It’s one Lewis still appreciates despite the Steelers’ struggles this season.
“This is the first time where they’ve had more new guys having to play, and you’ve got to get it going and get it back together,” Lewis said. “I could probably walk in right now and understand the concepts and the terminology and the verbiage; it’s not like they’ve changed. They’re just trying to get the guys back in place and doing it the way they want all the time.”
From Lewis’ perspective, the concepts and the philosophy are as sound as they’ve ever been.
“Whether it’s the running game or the passing game, you’re going to continue to apply pressure to the ball,” Lewis continued. “With the flexibility of the 3-4 and the concepts of that, you have the ability to change up who that fourth rusher is in there, sometimes adding a fifth and even sometimes a sixth with overload of a protection one way or another, and then being able to have eyes on the football (zone coverage deep) back the other way.”
The current Steelers’ defensive backs coach came aboard as a linebacker-to-safety convert from UCLA on the second round of the 1989 draft, three years before the transition of the defense upon the arrival of Cowher, Capers, Lewis and LeBeau.
“(Former defensive coordinator) Rod (Rust) ran sort of a match-zone kind of defense,” Lake explained. “It wasn’t too far off in terms of delivering receivers through your zone, passing them off to another person. The concept of playing zone, playing your man in your zone man-to-man and then once he left your zone looking for someone else, that was an ‘Ah-ha’ moment.
“The other difference was there was a lot more pressure, pressuring the quarterback, under Dom and Dick’s system.”
Lewis would go on to Baltimore and coordinate a record-setting, Super Bowl-winning defense in 2000.
“The same defense, basically, converted for a 4-3,” Lake said.
The same defense that has won Super Bowls and stood the test of time in Pittsburgh.
“I think there are a number of reasons,” Lake said. “No. 1, LeBeau is exceptional at understanding offenses and putting in a defensive game-plan that has the ability to work with the personnel we have. No. 2, it’s the personnel we’ve had over the course of these many years at the Steelers. No matter what defense you have if you don’t have the players it’s not going to work.”
Frustrated as he is with the results this season, Polamalu continues to defend the defense.
“There are very few holes,” he said. “You can have leverage issues. You can have coverage issues just like any other defense, but it’s a very sound defense. And if you can understand the defense, if you can understand how it’s going to be attacked by teams, it makes this defense even better.
“When you hear about defensive guys coming from other places and what they do, how they play certain routes, it’s not sound. Our defense can be very complex in places. It can be very simple in places, but it’s always very sound. I might have been out of the league by now if I had been in a different scheme. I really enjoy this scheme.”
“You can see on tape a lot of people have been trying to run our defense,” Taylor said. “Our defense is run by 11 guys, man. If 10 guys are on the same page and that one guy is not, it’s going to be difficult on the other 10. That’s how difficult the defense is. But if everybody’s on the same page, then, man, we have a great defense going.”
The Steelers’ defensive coordinator is aware of what has gone wrong this season and what has not.
“We’ve had some games where there haven’t been any big plays,” he said. “In the past it was almost every game.
“I definitely don’t think the defense needs rebuilding. Maybe their coach is getting a little old, I don’t know. But I think the players can still get it done.”
As for what they’re being asked to execute, “I started on this scheme in the early ’80s,” LeBeau added. “Things evolved. There’s stuff that’s different, but there’s a lot of stuff that’s the same.”