The Pittsburgh Steelers travel to face the Baltimore Ravens this weekend looking to avoid a 0-3 record without their starting quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. Having lost their last two games, to the Ravens and Cleveland Browns, Mike Tomlin’s side must find a way to win with third string quarterback Charlie Batch under center. Winning without Roethlisberger hasn’t been a major issue in the franchise’s most recent past, in fact, more often they have struggled without all-pro safety Troy Polamalu on defense opposed to Roethlsiberger on offense.
Despite not being with the franchise when the Steelers drafted Polamalu in 2003, LeBeau instantly inserted him into his starting lineup in 2004, before crafting his defense to get the best out of the unorthodox superstar. For the best part of eight seasons, Polamalu was a constant terrorist for opposing offenses and the heartbeat of the Steelers’ whole defense. The only problem with the team’s dependance on Polamalu to fill an unconventional role, was nobody could fill that role whenever he was missing. As a result, the whole complexion of the defense completely changed and every player on the field had to adjust their roles.
This season, Polamalu has only started two games, registered no defensed passes, sacks, interceptions to go along with just five tackles. In the only whole game Polamalu has played in, the Steelers lost to Peyton Manning‘s Denver Broncos on opening night. Yet, despite those disparaging aspects of the defense, the unit is still ranked first in total yards, passing yards as well as being top five in rushing yards allowed per game. Their 5-4 record without Polamalu in the starting lineup isn’t ideal, but also can’t be traced back to his absence. Two of those losses were close games that slipped away without Roethlisberger also.
Only a matter of two years ago, the Steelers’ defense would have fallen apart without Polamalu for nine games of the season. But since that time, an alteration in approach and upgrade in quality at key positions has made the defense a more well-rounded unit. The Steelers used to play with small cornerbacks who fit into a zone scheme. Players like Deshea Townsend, Bryant McFadden and William Gay couldn’t shut down receivers, but could use their intelligence and agility to take advantage of pressure coming from the front seven. The drafting of Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and to a much lesser extent, Curtis Brown, to play alongside Ike Taylor morphed the Steelers’ secondary from a group of undersized, agile cornerbacks to one full of speed and size.
With that size, speed and range, the Steelers began to play a lot more press man coverage to take the pressure off of the strong safety position. The high quality coverage of Lewis and Taylor outside, with Allen excelling in the slot, allowed Polamalu’s replacement, Will Allen to have an easier time. It also meant that the Steelers were less reliant on Polamalu’s ability to make quarterbacks hesitate when reading defenses.
For the Steelers, there is not enough time to change their approach offensively or add different pieces if deemed necessary to take the pressure off of Roethlisberger. Instead, they must be better prepared for the next time that Roethlisberger misses significant time. Even if that simply means investing in a better quality backup who can replicate his style of play. The quarterback may be vital for every team in the league, the position’s very nature makes it that way, but the Steelers’ reliance on Roethlisberger right now is astronomically greater than it should be.