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Can a young Steelers defense keep pace with its big-play offense?

“We expect our guys to play good, dominant defense, regardless of who they are.”

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Ben Roethlisberger is shredding the defense. Play after play, rep after rep, the outcome is the same:

Snap. Drop back. Touchdown.

A pass to Antonio Brown in the middle of the end zone. A run up the gut by Deangelo Williams. A run off left tackle by Le’Veon Bell. A pass to Martavis Bryant in the corner of the endzone. 

Snap. Drop back. Touchdown. 

This Steelers offense is good. So good that Roethlisberger has said that he expects the team to put up 30 points every game. At least, that’s the goal.

"Unless we score every single time we have the ball, we [leave] points on the board,” he says. “We had a pretty good year last year, but that was last year. So like I said, we just have to work our butts off to be the best that we can be.”

How good can this offense be? Guard David DeCastro explains it rather simply.

“The sky’s the limit, really,” says DeCastro, one of Roethlisberger’s primary blockers. Once much-maligned, this offensive line blossomed last year into a unit that gave Roethlisberger and the Steelers running backs room to operate. That offense gained nearly 5,000 yards, and Roethlisberger threw a career-high 32 touchdowns. 

By the look of the offense on this day at training camp, the sky is indeed the limit. And as the Steelers offense goes, so should the team this season. 

But there’s a slight problem.

The defense being dismantled on this day also belongs to the Steelers. Once dominant, the defense transitioned in recent years from a Steel Curtain that stops everything to a bend-don’t-break-unit that tried to at least stop the big plays. And most weeks last year, it didn’t even do that. That defense was more like a dollar-store camp chair trying to support the weight of Casey Hampton — more often than not, it gave way.

Le’Veon Bell, making a move against the Green Bay Packers during an Aug. 23 preseason game, may be the best running back in football and will be crucial to the Steelers success this season. - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL
  • Photo by Heather Mull
  • Le’Veon Bell, making a move against the Green Bay Packers during an Aug. 23 preseason game, may be the best running back in football and will be crucial to the Steelers success this season.

There were changes in the backfield. Long-time defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau, whose defenses had lost their edge and become increasingly easy for offenses to figure out, left for the Tennessee Titans (and not, most watchers agree, of his own volition). Gone also are defensive stalwarts Troy Polamalu, the aging safety who had once done things in an NFL secondary that you couldn’t even do in a video game, and Ike Taylor, a cornerback who for years was able to earn a starting job because of his coverage capabilities despite near-invisible interception numbers. Add to that the loss of Brett Keisel and the shocking retirement of linebacker Jason Worilds, and the Steelers are left with a young defense with a lot of question marks.

In the team’s third preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, for example, Aaron Rodgers made the Steelers’ starting 11 look foolish at times. Receivers were left wide open. Running backs were allowed safe passage into the open field. It didn’t look like a Steelers defense. Hell, at times it didn’t even look like a mediocre Quad A WPIAL defense.

There were bright spots, though. James Harrison sacked quarterback Rodgers for a safety, and the Steelers tallied five more sacks on the Pack’s back-up squad. But while there were bright spots, there was still plenty of room for concern.

“Defensively, we warmed up … which we can’t afford to do,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said after the game. “You don’t always get the opportunity to warm up in our business.”

Jarvis Jones needs to take a step forward in 2015 - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL
  • Photo by Heather Mull
  • Jarvis Jones needs to take a step forward in 2015

The offense, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to need much time to get things going. Against Green Bay, even though the Steelers didn’t score until the second quarter, Roethlisberger appeared to move the ball pretty well. 

His main target was Antonio Brown, a receiver who showed signs of being a superstar in 2013 and cemented it last year with nearly 1,700 yards and 13 touchdowns. In very limited action, Roethlisberger hit Brown for four catches as well as a 58-yard touchdown pass that was negated on an offensive pass-interference call.

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