Since returning to the Pittsburgh Steelers as the defensive coordinator in 2004, Dick Lebeau's defenses have dominated the NFL leading to three Super Bowl appearances and two championship rings. The father of the zone blitz, originally implemented in Cincinnati in the late 1980s, has been lauded by many in the NFL as one of the best defensive coaches in league history while simultaneously reaching legendary status with Pittsburghers.
However, despite his reputation of being a great coordinator, Lebeau's squad has been inconsistent the last 20 weeks of meaningful football; at least by Pittsburgh's standards.
A traditional Pittsburgh Steelers defense would never allow a washed up quarterback like Carson Palmer to put up 20 points in the second half, including the game tying and game winning field goals, three minutes apart.
A traditional Steelers defense would never have allowed a struggling running back, who came into the game with 64 yards combined in the first two weeks, to run for 113 yards on 18 carries.
What is the problem with the defense? Well, it stems from a multitude of issues from the top-down.
Is it safe to say the Dick Lebeau era is coming to an end? Not just because he is 75 years old, but also due to the fact that teams might have figured out how to stop his confusing zone blitz scheme. If you go back to the game against Oakland, the Steelers blitzed multiple times on the final drive yet barely touched Palmer. The 17 yard strike to a wide open Derek Hagan (setting the Raiders up for a game-winning field goal) came on a six-man rush that was perfectly picked up by the Raider offense.
The sack numbers tell the same story. The Steelers dropped Palmer once last Sunday bringing the season total up to five in three games. At this point, only six teams have fewer sacks than the Pittsburgh Steelers. Obviously, the season is still young and there is plenty of time to rack up sacks before January; however, this seems to be a trend dating back to last season when the Steelers were ranked 17th.
In the playoffs, the defense failed to register a sack against Tim Tebow who, in turn, torched them for 316 yards and two touchdowns on only 10 completions. Where was the pressure?
Where were the turnovers?
Last season, the Steelers were 17th in sacks and 24th in interceptions. It was the first time since 2007 the Steelers failed to rank in the top ten in either category. For a system that prides itself on confusing the quarterback and attacking the ball, that's not a good stat. With just five sacks and one interception through the first three games, the defense looks to be heading down that road again.
But it's not just the coordinator's fault. The players have to execute the system the way it's intended. Lawrence Timmons has been the biggest disappointment on the team over the last 20 weeks of meaningful football. Timmons signed a huge contract in the summer of 2011 and followed that up with a sub-par performance.
The $50 million linebacker is playing like a second year back up who is still trying to find his way. At times, Timmons has been out of position leading to quick scores by the opposition (see: McFadden touchdown). But even if he was making the typical plays, he would still be viewed as an overpaid player. A middle linebacker with a $50 million contract is paid to take the ball away from the other team and to dominate every time he steps on the field. That isn't happening.
Which brings me to my next point: since Mike Tomlin was hired, the Steelers have yet to draft an impact defensive player other than Lamarr Woodley. Ziggy Hood has been a bust, so far, and linebackers Jason Worilds and Stevenson Sylvestor are nothing more than backups. Chris Carter and Jason Heyward are only in their second season so it's hard to judge, but the overall youth on what has become an old defense is lacking playmakers.
The Steelers are missing James Harrison and Troy Polamalu which is a contributing factor to their struggles. That being said, they are not the same players from four years ago. Harrison is pushing 35 and has had knee and back issues for the last two seasons. He started to show his age late last season when he registered 1 sack in the final four months. Polamalu has had multiple muscle pulls to compliment five concussions and at the age of 31, that has to take a toll.
Before the season started, I predicted the Steelers would struggle on defense due to these very same reasons. Again, this may be an overreaction since there are still 13 games left in the season, but the defense has been turning in these types of performances more frequently in the last year and a half. This may be the season that starts the downswing on what was a borderline dynastic team just a few years ago.