Labriola on finding and drafting CBs

Ready or not, here it comes:

• “Our game has always been about getting physical (cornerbacks) who can come off the edge and close off the edge and make a tackle. But are they doing that at the expense of not making plays on the football? We have to maybe try to find that balance and maybe be more open to the concept that the game is constantly changing and if you want playmakers in the back end, then find someone who has done it.”

• That was General Manager Kevin Colbert speaking at the NFL Scouting Combine on what should be the theme of the Steelers’ 2019 draft preparation, and it should be the theme because if there has been one consistently deficient area of the team’s performance of late it has been in the area of creating takeaways, particularly coming up with interceptions.

• I have been beating this one statistic to death of late, but that’s only because it’s so appropriate for the time: In 2018, the Steelers tied a franchise low with eight interceptions in a 16-game season during which the defense recorded 54 sacks and faced 566 pass attempts. The eight-interceptions-in-a-season mark first was “reached” in 1940, when a Steelers team that finished 2-7-2 hit that mark while facing a combined 192 pass attempts from its 11 opponents.

• The Steelers in general, and Colbert in particular, have taken on criticism for a perceived inability to draft and develop cornerbacks, but as Colbert’s statement from the Combine suggests, it’s less about an inability to draft cornerbacks but rather the kind of cornerbacks the team has been drafting. And when.

• On Bill Cowher’s inaugural staff of assistant coaches, he had Dom Capers as the defensive coordinator, Marvin Lewis as the linebackers coach, and Dick LeBeau as the secondary coach. With LeBeau providing much of the intellectual stimulus, those men devised the fire-zone concepts that helped get the Steelers to four Super Bowls and eight AFC Championship Games over the course of the 19 seasons the team used those concepts as the foundation of its defense.

• Of all of those assistants, LeBeau was employed by the Steelers the longest, with his tenure spanning 16 seasons over two separate stints with the team. LeBeau was with Cowher from 1992-96 before leaving to take the same job with the Cincinnati Bengals, only to return in 2004 when Jim Haslett and then Tim Lewis proved incapable of filling his shoes.

• The hallmark of LeBeau’s fire-zone schemes, otherwise known as the zone-blitz, was to be able to apply maximum pressure on the quarterback without compromising the unit in coverage. Playing zone behind the pressure forced the quarterback to recognize if and from where the pressure was coming at him while also having to decipher the zone coverage behind it.

• In the case of a traditional blitz, receivers could actually outnumber defenders in some situations, and in others a one-on-one matchup could be created that could expose the coverage to a big play. Under the zone-blitz concepts, applying pressure came from surprising the protection scheme rather than simply outnumbering the blockers, which left enough guys in the back end to align in a zone and defend all the areas of the field.

• Guys who might normally be attacking might be dropping into coverage, and vice versa, and the indecision created by this and the time it took for the quarterback to figure it all out forced him to hold onto the ball long enough for the pass rush to get to him. At least that was the theory, and for a long time it was very, very, very successful.

• In this defensive scheme, cornerbacks had to be big and physical, willing and able to punish receivers after the ball arrived. Good tacklers, especially in run support because that’s how a defense got the offense in those third-and-long situations where the zone-blitz could be turned lose to torment the quarterback.

• In this defensive scheme, linebackers > cornerbacks. All day, every day.

• In this defensive scheme, ball skills weren’t mandatory for cornerbacks to be able to get on the field, because a team could win a lot of games playing cornerbacks like Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden and Deon Figures, because they were physical with receivers, good tacklers, effective in run support. And it was the safeties who often found themselves with the opportunities to make plays on the football, and in his first stint as defensive coordinator LeBeau had Darren Perry (32 interceptions in 110 starts), and in his second stint he had Troy Polamalu (32 interceptions in 142 starts) making the most of those opportunities.

• And so that’s why the Steelers would spend their premium draft picks (first three rounds) on linebackers – Chad Brown, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons – and generally wait until the later rounds to address the cornerback position. There were some exceptions, such as Bryant McFadden and Ricardo Colclough, both second-round picks, and Keenan Lewis, who was a third-round pick, but for the most part during LeBeau’s second stint as the team’s defensive coordinator, the Steelers picked cornerbacks in the fourth and fifth rounds (Will Gay, Joe Burnett, Crezdon Butler, Cortez Allen, Terrence Frederick, Terry Hawthorne, and Shaquille Richardson).

• But as NFL offenses evolved and learned how to neuter the zone-blitz, the Steelers have had to change their approach to evaluating cornerbacks, but it hasn’t happened as quickly and as efficiently as has been necessary.

• The first cornerback the Steelers drafted who came to the team with a reputation as not being great in run support was Artie Burns, and there were some obvious examples of that weakness during his rookie training camp in Latrobe. But Burns came with a resume that included six interceptions in his final college season, and when he added three in nine starts as an NFL rookie, well, it became easier to accept the trade-off of run support for ball skills.

• Burns’ game has cratered since then, and it’s anyone’s guess whether he will be able to rebound, but his rookie season was evidence that when it comes to the cornerback position in today’s NFL, trading ball skills for run support is a good move. In fact it’s a necessary move.

• The Steelers won a lot of games and a couple of trophies during the two eras LeBeau served as the defensive coordinator, they did a nice job of prioritizing the positions on their defense, and their draft classes reflected that.

• But as Colbert explained in Indianapolis, “the game is constantly changing and if you want playmakers in the back end …” For these Steelers, playmakers in the back end is more than a want, it’s a need, because eight interceptions on 566 pass attempts behind a front seven that posted 54 sacks isn’t good enough to make the playoffs let alone contend for a championship.

• Times have changed, and the Steelers must change with them. And because in today’s NFL, interceptions > sacks, it follows that the players who make interceptions are more important than the players who sack the quarterback.

• Teams still need both, but the priority is clear. The way the Steelers draft defensive players now has to reflect that.