by Michael David Smith
Six weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers were generally recognized as, at worst, the No. 3 team in the AFC, behind only the mighty Patriots, and maybe the Colts. They looked like a better team than the 2005 squad that won the Super Bowl, and their defense looked like it could keep them in any game.
But the Steelers have lost three of their last six games, and even in the three wins they haven't looked particularly impressive, and while their defense isn't bad, it's no longer dominating. So what's happened? To find out, I watched the Steelers' defense on every play of Thursday's game against the Rams, a game they won handily but also a game in which the Rams' offense â€“- one of the worst in the league â€“- frequently moved the ball effectively, including three different touchdown drives of 50 yards or more.
One thing is very clear: The Steelers miss free safety Ryan Clark, who started the first six games of the season but is out for the rest of the year because of an inflamed spleen. Clark is a smart player who understands his responsibilities in coordinator Dick LeBeau's defense, and the Steelers' secondary looks a bit disorganized without him.
The Rams' first two offensive plays demonstrated first the wrong and then the right way to attack the Steelers' secondary. On both plays cornerback Deshea Townsend was matched one-on-one with Rams receiver Isaac Bruce. On the first play, Bruce ran a deep route along the left sideline. Townsend did a good job staying step-for-step with Bruce, and Rams quarterback Marc Bulger's pass fell incomplete. But on the second play, Bruce ran a slant over the middle, and while Townsend made a sound tackle once Bruce caught the ball, it was a fairly easy 9-yard gain for the Rams because Bruce and Bulger knew Townsend was going to keep Bruce in front of him the whole way, and because strong safety Troy Polamalu was lined up more as an additional inside linebacker than as a true safety.
The Steelers' cornerbacks at times lined up as if they were in press coverage on the Rams' wide receivers, but they rarely touched them at the line of scrimmage. On a second-and-3 in the first quarter, Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor was lined up opposite Torry Holt, and even though Taylor was right on top of him, Holt ran inside easily without Taylor touching him. The result was a 19-yard gain.
LeBeau's scheme relies heavily on the cornerbacks helping out in run support, and I liked the way the Rams used motion against that. At the start of the Rams' second drive, St. Louis came out in a run-heavy formation, with a tight end and a fullback in front of running back Steven Jackson. When Bruce went in motion to the opposite side of the field, Taylor cheated up toward the line of scrimmage, clearly expecting a handoff to Jackson and thinking Bruce's motion meant he wasn't responsible for covering a wide receiver. But just before the snap Bruce began running back to the right and behind Jackson, selling a fake-end around. That forced Taylor back toward the sideline, occupying him while the handoff went to Jackson. Jackson picked up seven yards before free safety Tyrone Carter (who started after Clark's first replacement, Anthony Smith, didn't pan out) tackled him. It was a well-designed play by Rams coach Scott Linehan and a play I think other teams should emulate when they play the Steelers.
Other teams should also emulate plays like Bulger's 12-yard touchdown pass to Bruce in the second quarter. On a third-and-8 at the 12-yard line, Bruce and Holt both lined up on the right side of the field, and the Steelers gave them a huge cushion, with Taylor eight yards off the line of scrimmage. With that much space in front of him, Bruce had an easy time running into the end zone and getting wide open, and he did a nice job of getting both feet down as he reeled in Bulger's pass.
The best player in the Steelers' secondary is still Polamalu, but even he had a few missed tackles against the Rams. Overall, I'd take Polamalu over almost any strong safety in the league because of plays like the shovel pass to Jackson in the third quarter, when Polamalu showed both his athleticism and his intelligence: He came flying in and ran Jackson down near the sideline, and then he smartly saw that Jackson was holding the ball in his inside arm â€“- a habit every running back needs to break â€“- and slapped at it. The ball came loose but bounced through the arms of Carter and was ultimately recovered by Rams receiver Dane Looker.
The Steelers' scheme is so reliant on Polamalu, though, that when he misses tackles, there's no one else around to make the play. If Clark were still playing, a Polamalu missed tackle wouldn't be quite as catastrophic as it is with Clark sidelined.
In addition to Clark, the other injured player the Steelers miss is defensive end Aaron Smith. Travis Kirschke, Smith's replacement, is the weak point on the defensive line. Jackson's longest run of the game, a 36-yarder at the beginning of the second quarter, came when Kirschke was blown back at the snap, and it didn't even take much of a block to do it: Rams right tackle Brandon Gorin gave him one hard push, and that was all it took for Kirschke to get out of position. Jackson ran right behind Gorin, and when Polamalu dove at Jackson's feet and missed, Jackson was in the clear. The run could have been limited to about 20 yards, but Taylor dove at Jackson's feet and missed, too, and Jackson got 16 more yards before Carter finally pushed him out of bounds.
When Mike Tomlin first became the Steelers' head coach, there were a lot of questions about whether Tomlin or LeBeau would run the defense. But the defense I saw the Steelers use against the Rams Thursday was the same defense they ran last year. This is LeBeau's defense, not Tomlin's.
LeBeau spent 14 years as an NFL player and has spent another 35 as an NFL coach, and he's done a lot more than just develop the zone blitz that he's best known for. Still, that is the staple of his defense. The scheme I liked best against the Rams was an overload blitz late in the fourth quarter, when the Rams had Jackson lined up to Bulger's left, and a tight end running a route on the right, meaning there were just two blockers to Bulger's right side. Linebackers James Farrior and Clark Haggans both blitzed from that side, and when Townsend did too, there was no-one left to block him, and he came in untouched, hitting Bulger just as he passed the ball. That's the kind of aggressive play-calling the Steelers are going to need the rest of the way, especially without Smith collapsing the pocket.
Most of the Steelers' defensive problems seem to be about execution, not scheme. On a Jackson run in the first quarter, inside linebacker Larry Foote came on a run blitz, and it was the perfect call for what the Rams were doing: With Jackson all alone in the backfield and the Steelers' defensive line occupying the Rams' center and left guard, Foote had a clear path to drill Jackson behind the line of scrimmage. But Jackson's spin move left Foote grasping at air, and linebacker Clark Haggans also missed a tackle on the play, leaving Jackson alone to pick up 10 yards.
Jackson's first touchdown was a short pass he caught near the line of scrimmage on the right side of the field. He turned it into a touchdown by outrunning the entire Steelers defense to the goal line at the left sideline. Once again, there was nothing wrong with how the defense was drawn up, but no players were quick enough to get to the outside and tackle Jackson.
Sometimes football really comes down to something as simple as which team executes better at tackling, and that seems to be the problem with the Steelers right now. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh fans, it doesn't look like a problem that can be fixed in the next week or two. The team that once looked like the biggest threat to the Patriots and Colts in the AFC now looks like it won't get a shot to play either of them.