What Happened To Vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers' Defense?

By Jeff Hartman
Troy Polamalu
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday’s debacle was not the first time that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady carved up the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ defense. In fact, he has made a name for himself by doing just that. However, if you’ve watched the Steelers this season, the defense has left a lot to be desired.

No longer do the Steelers completely take away an opponent’s running game and then get after the quarterback. In fact, the Steelers can’t stop the run and rarely ever get to the quarterback. Just by looking at the NFL defensive rankings tells a lot about the Steelers’ defense.

The Steelers are giving up 131 rushing yards per game; that is worthy of the 31st worst rush defense in the NFL. The passing defense is doing better, giving up 210 passing yards per game, but that number can be deceiving. After all, Brady did pass for more than 200 yards Sunday. The Steelers have 13 sacks on the season and a paltry six turnovers through eight football games. Those statistics are not statistics of a dominating defense, nor are they statistics of a typical Steelers defense.

When the Steelers are unable to stop the run, they are in trouble; that simple fact throws Dick Lebeau‘s entire defensive scheme out of whack. Since Lebeau returned to the Steelers, the defense has thrived on stopping the run and doing everything based off of that, and throughout Lebeua’s tenure with Pittsburgh when his defense has given up 100-plus rushing yards, they have typically lost.

So, what is the main issue this season compared to past seasons? Some point to a lack of leadership, but I point to a lack of playmakers. Former defensive linemen like Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton would clog the middle of the field and let the linebackers make plays. This defensive line play cannot go unnoticed for how truly special and important they were to the defense.

Those linebackers were certainly a group worthy of mention. Joey Porter, James Farrior, James Harrison, Jason Gildon and Clark Haggans made plays on a consistent basis. However, the main key to this puzzle was the defensive line freeing the linebackers to make plays. This current Steelers team does not have a dominating defensive line, and because of that, the linebackers are having to shed blockers instead of make tackles.

The Steelers’ secondary has always been the weaker part of the defense in Lebeau’s scheme, and even though the numbers are good this season, that doesn’t mean that this secondary matches the numbers. Troy Polamalu continues to be a mainstay in the secondary, but as was evident Sunday, he can still be victimized. Ryan Clark‘s better days seem to be behind him, and Ike Taylor is fighting against father time.

Upon further review, this Steelers’ defense just isn’t as dominating as they have been in the past. A lack of presence on the line not only factors into the opponent’s running game, but it also hinders the entire defensive scheme. The defense isn’t making plays, and a lot of that is because of a lack of true playmakers.

However you slice it, the Steelers’ problems aren’t just on the offensive side of the football. This once proud defense has now been reduced to mediocrity, and even that might be generous.

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