Saturday, January 21, 2012

Requiem for a Season: 2011 Steelers Defense

What started as a frenetic end to the summer where a last-minute deal was reached on a collective bargaining agreement that enabled the 2012 NFL season to take place ended suddenly for Steelers fans on a cold Sunday night in Denver. Over the summer, we were told that the Steelers experience and depth would enable them to be successful in a season where there were no OTAs and an abbreviated training camp. As it was, the season started with us getting gashed on the ground by Baltimore and Houston, battling through injuries to our world class pass rushers, and ended with giving up 316 yards to Tim Tebow, of all people.

Defensive Line 

 For the second time in the last three seasons, the Steelers spent their first round draft pick on a defensive end. While some may have questioned this move, it was the right move to make from a personnel standpoint. Even with the additions of Hood and Heyward, the Steelers still have aging bodies up front, with Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, and Chris Hoke all over 30. Smith and Hoke both suffered season-ending injuries that may wind up to be career-ending given their age. Hampton tore his ACL in the playoff game in Denver, which puts his status in question for the beginning of next season (not to mention his monster cap hit). Keisel tore his groin in Denver, which is as bad as it sounds, but he should be good to go by the beginning of camp. For a position where we needed youth and depth, the front office has addressed that with the additions of Hood, Heyward and Steve McLendon. If Smith and Hoke both retire, the Steelers will still need to add more bodies up front this offseason.

 Pending Free Agents: Chris Hoke (UFA), Steve McLendon (ERFA)

 The Offseason: Casey Hampton's contract will count for $8 million against the Cap next year, and the Steelers can save almost $6 million of that by cutting Hampton. His recovery from ACL surgery not withstanding, Hampton may wind up going the Max Starks route where he gets cut but the Steelers keep him on speed dial as they monitor his recovery. He may draw some interest from other teams looking for a short-term stopgap in their defensive front, but his age and injury history mean he won't be drawing big money from anyone. The Steelers should head into camp with Keisel, McLendon and Ziggy as the starters with Cam Heyward as the top backup. They will need to add at least 2, possibly 3, men to the roster to provide depth here. If Hampton and Hoke both do not return, the Steelers could be looking at nose tackles early in the draft. Though, given the fact that more teams are spreading the Steelers out with 4 and 5-wide sets, the Steelers tend to play a lot more nickel than base defense, which means any nose tackle is more of a 2-down player, making them less of a priority.


 There might not have been a unit on the team that was more devastated by injuries this season than the linebacking corps. After a monster October, LaMarr Woodley missed most of the second half of the season after shredding his hamstring. James Harrison broke his orbital bone in September then came back looking like Darth Vader, only to be suspended by Roger Goodell for blasting Colt McCoy. James Farrior missed the New England game and Larry Foote battled through injuries all season. Lawrence Timmons had the least effective year of his career, switching between inside and outside linebacker depending on the health of the outside guys. Top OLB backup Jason Worlids was injured for the first half of the year and was able to return just in time when Woodley went down. Rookie OLB Chris Carter suffered a season-ending injury in there somewhere as well. Stevenson Sylvester actually started a game, and with the pending cap situation might be in line for an increased role in 2012. 

Pending Free Agents: none

 The Offseason: The biggest thing for this group is to get healthy. The Steelers failed to generate consistent pressure on the quarterback this year, and that can partially be attributed to the fact that Woodley and Harrison only started a handful of games together. Lawrence Timmons missed a bunch of tackles and needs to return to his 2010 form when he played at a Pro Bowl level. Farrior is aging and his $3 million cap hit could make him a cap casualty this offseason. Larry Foote is also due about $3 million and could be a candidate to have his contract re-structured. Consensus around the media and fanbase is that cutting Farrior would be problematic as he makes all the on-field calls on defense and that Lawrence Timmons does not understand the defense enough to step into this role. Either way, Farrior's age and ability to drop into coverage is definitely a concern and the Steelers very well could look to draft an inside linebacker early in the draft. The Steelers have not made many big moves in free agency, but Farrior was a free agent acquisition (from the Jets), so if the front office feels they need a more experienced player to fill Potsie's role, they may look at the talent available on the free agent market. If they feel Foote is capable of stepping into Farrior's role and making the defensive calls, they could look to the draft for an eventual partner for Timmons on the inside.


 The position where most thought we were vulnerable entering the season turned out to be one of our biggest strengths. Granted, individuals did have bad games (Bryant McFadden vs Baltimore, Will Gay vs Baltimore and Ike Taylor vs Denver) but on the whole, this group exceeded expectations. After an early-season injury, McFadden was buried on the depth chart and Will Gay stepped up to be a significant contributor and solid starter on the outside. Ike Taylor had one of the best regular seasons of his career then got torched in the playoffs. Keenan Lewis finally stepped up his game and emerged as a solid nickel corner that played physical on the outside, enabling Gay to move into the slot in nickel. Rookie Cortez Allen had his best game against New England when he shut down Gronk in man coverage. Fellow rookie Curtis Brown was a special teams ace, leading the team in special teams tackles before suffering a season-ending injury.

 Pending Free Agents: William Gay (UFA), Keenan Lewis (RFA), Anthony Madison (UFA)

 The Offseason: While Brown and Allen are the future of the position, the Steelers will likely make a concerted effort to re-sign both Gay and Lewis. Gay played well throughout much of the season and looked the best he has yet in his career. He is capable of playing the slot in the nickel package, which is an essential cog in LeBeau's defensive scheme. Lewis took a big step forward this year and should be in the mix for playing time again next year. Anthony Madison presents an interesting option for the team, as he was brought in as a special teams player after Cortez Allen was injured. Given that the Steelers will probably cut ties with Safety Will Allen (who is making over $1 million), they may bring Madison back at the veteran minimum as a special teams ace. Assuming Gay and Lewis come back, the Steelers have a solid group of 5 corners heading into the offseason, but may look to add another late in the draft.


 Troy Polamalu didn't miss any games this season, even though he was taken out of two with concussion-like symptoms. Ryan Clark was the team's leading tackler, which is problematic. It was a great year for Ryan, but any time a safety is your leading tackler, it means your inside linebackers aren't doing their jobs. As long as the Steelers don't have to play in Denver, Ryan Clark should be hitting on all cylinders once again next year. Troy had an up-and-down year. He made a lot of significant plays in run defense, and given the Steelers struggles against the run, found himself playing in the box a lot more this year. He did drop a few interceptions early in the year that hit him right between the numbers. Ryan Mundy emerged as a decent backup who saw the field in the "Dollar" defense when the Steelers went with 3 corners and 3 safeties. Will Allen was primarily a special teams player who battled through some injuries.

 Pending Free Agents: Ryan Mundy (RFA)

 The Offseason: The top two here are set in stone heading into camp. Will Allen and his $1 million-plus salary are a candidate for the cut list as the Steelers try to clear cap room before the early March deadline. The Steelers will likely try to bring Ryan Mundy back as the back-up at both safety positions and will likely add a fourth somewhere, whether that is a veteran through free agency brought in near the minimum or a rookie in the middle rounds of the draft. Personally, I would prefer to see them add a safety in the middle of the draft to give them some youth on the back end as Troy is 30 and Ryan Clark is 32.

No comments: