Since the 2004 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers have ranked either first in points allowed or first in yards allowed on six occasions. Five times they ranked in the top two of both categories during that span.
Not coincidentally, the 2004 season was Dick LeBeau’s first as the team’s defensive coordinator.
LeBeau built his 3-4 defense from the front. Nose tackle Casey Hampton, defensive ends Aaron Smith and Kimo van Oelhoffen set the tone by shutting down the opponent’s running game, while linebackers Larry Foote and James Farrior flowed to the football. Joey Porter was the disruptive force off the edge, while Clark Haggans was a reliable all-rounder.
During the 2004 season, the Steelers ranked third in run defense DVOA. That metric, via Football Outsiders, is the best way to measure LeBeau’s scheme because it measures efficiency on first, second, third and fourth down. LeBeau’s defense was built on the idea of winning the early downs by shutting down the running game to take the pressure off of his secondary on the latter downs.
LeBeau used various disguised rushes and exotic blitzes to attack the passing game on latter downs, primarily relying on zone coverage behind those chasing the passer.
This meant that LeBeau’s defense primarily featured smaller defensive backs. In 2004, his cornerbacks were Deshea Townsend, Chad Scott and Ricardo Colclough. Scott was the only one of the trio who broke six foot. Over the coming seasons, the Steelers would feature players such as Townsend, Bryant McFadden, William Gay and one player who broke six foot, Ike Taylor.
Dick LeBeau’s defense consumed his philosophy and was built in his image.
The dominating front seven and opportunistic secondary made it very difficult for teams to stay balanced throughout four full quarters. Although the faces changed, von Oelhoffen was replaced by Keisel, Porter by James Harrison, Haggans by LaMarr Woodley, free safety Chris Hope by Ryan Clark, the image remained the same.
Better teams would stay committed to the running game, but rarely were they able to be effective, while lesser teams would often be forced to abandon the running game altogether. Something that made it easier for the Steelers defense to feast on their quarterback.
As the league’s offenses continued to change and the Steelers failed to adequately replace their ageing stars in the front seven, LeBeau was faced with dilemma that needed to be addressed.
As of May 2014, LeBeau is a 76-year-old man. He has been in the NFL for over 50 years and he built great success on very specific ideals and a very specific scheme. If we were profiling him like an FBI investigator, we would expect him to be stubborn. Stuck in ways that had previously served him so well.
However, profiling LeBeau would be a mistake.
The Hall of Fame coach understood that he needed to adapt to survive in the NFL. Even though his defense is no longer as dominant as what it once was, in fact it wasn’t even good last year as it ranked outside the top 10 in yards allowed, points allowed and DVOA, there are clear signs that point to an altered philosophy.
On the defensive line, the Steelers had previously focused on finding big bodied athletes who could swallow space and dominate against the running game. Each of Kimo von Oellhoffen, Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, Travis Kirschke, Nick Eason, Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke fit that style of player.
Smith and Hampton were the best of those players, so fittingly the change began when their replacements were being identified.
Although he is now with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Evander Hood was drafted with the 32nd pick of the 2009 draft to be Smith’s heir. Hood wasn’t seen as a good fit for the Steelers. He was more of a 4-3 penetrator instead of a 3-4 run stuffer. Hood was forced into the starting lineup earlier than anticipated because of multiple injuries to Smith.
Predictably, he struggled to be effective. Part of Hood’s struggles was his poor fit in the scheme, but the primary reason was that he simply wasn’t the talent the Steelers hoped he was.
Before the 2013 season, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette confirmed the slightly altered philosophy on the defensive line. At this time veteran defensive end Brett Keisel, the person who is quoted below, had lived through the early years of LeBeau and watched the early struggles of Hood’s career.
“There’s been an emphasis more on [ends] getting on the edge rather than just pushing the pocket, getting on the edge and trying to make something happen. We’ve kind of changed our techniques [from] years past until now.”
Even though Hood never worked out, there were signs during the 2013 season that suggest another first round pick, Cameron Heyward, could finally give the Steelers the quality of interior pass rush they’ve lacked since Aaron Smith was in his prime.
Hampton held on longer than Smith at nose tackle. He was the team’s starter until the 2013 season, when his place was taken by the lighter Steve McLendon.
McLendon had starred as an interior disruptor in nickel packages for the Steelers behind Hampton during the 2012 season. The Steelers signed him to a new contract during the offseason of 2013 when the Green Bay Packers showed some interest in him and he was immediately inserted as the team’s starting nose tackle.
Unlike Hampton, McLendon didn’t naturally man two gaps on the defensive line. The Steelers sacrificed dominance against the run for a more well-rounded player who offered more as a pass rusher.
McLendon failed to be as effective as hoped, but just like Hood, the altered approach from LeBeau was a smart move that simply needed more talent to succeed. There are still places in today’s NFL for run-stuffing defensive linemen who can’t rush the passer, but ideally you wouldn’t have to rely on those players.
The other significant staple of the Steelers defense that quickly changed under LeBeau was the cornerback position.
Since the 2008 season, the Steelers have drafted eight cornerbacks. Six of those are at least 6’0″ tall, while the only players who became significant contributors fell into that category. LeBeau didn’t dramatically change his defense, but he did bring in more athletes who could match up to the bigger, faster players catching passes in today’s NFL.
Even though many coaches in today’s NFL now recognise the need for more athletic players in the secondary, LeBeau didn’t need to see the Seattle Seahawks win the Super Bowl to come to that realization. Adding Keenan Lewis in the 2009 draft, Crezdon Butler in the 2010 draft and Cortez Allen in the 2011 draft shows that LeBeau understood the direction he needed to take his defense in.
Those were the first two steps LeBeau’s defense took towards creating a new identity, but there was more to come during the 2014 offseason.
During any offseason, the two most significant additions to your roster are either your top two draft picks, your top two free agent additions or your top draft pick and your top free agent addition. For the Steelers, it was a rare occasion when they invested in a high-priced free agent to go along with a first round pick who will be expected to start immediately.
Free safety Mike Mitchell was signed in free agency to a five-year $25 million deal. He will replace Ryan Clark, a player who had been a staple of the Steelers secondary and run defense for a very long time.
Clark is a hard hitter who could clean up mistakes from his teammates in the secondary or come down and act as an extra linebacker against the run. However, Clark was also never a spectacular athlete and his legs had severely limited his range in recent seasons.
That’s not what the team expects from Mitchell.
Mitchell is much more of an athlete than Clark ever was. He brings more range as a deep safety and will be more comfortable when asked to line up in man coverage against tight ends or receivers in the slot. Unlike Clark, Mitchell isn’t a reliable run defender or consistent tackler. He can make big hits, but he won’t intimidate receivers over the middle of the field like Clark did.
The contrast between how both safeties play the game is vast and easy to see.
Along with Mitchell, the Steelers also brought in Ryan Shazier as a priority addition. Shazier was the team’s first round pick in the draft. He is a very athletic inside linebacker who missed a lot of tackles during his time at Ohio State. Shazier is the kind of player the Steelers might have drafted in the past, but they would not have expected him to start early on and likely wouldn’t have paired him with Lawrence Timmons.
In Timmons and Shazier, the Steelers have two linebackers with outstanding athleticism and good speed. They are set up to play the pass better than the run, which is a far cry from what James Farrior and Larry Foote did for LeBeau in previous seasons.
The additions of Shazier and Mitchell to go along with Troy Polamalu, Shamarko Thomas, Timmons, Cortez Allen, William Gay and maybe even Sean Spence if he is healthy, shows off how the Steelers are focusing on improving their speed and coverage over the middle of the field.
LeBeau has clearly recognized how teams are creating mismatches with running backs and tight ends over the middle of the field in recent times. His effort to add more speed to the middle of the field can be traced back to the team’s selection of Spence in the third round of the 2012 draft. Spence came out of Miami as a projected 4-3 weakside linebacker.
Being stuck in your ways can be a fatal problem for coaches in a league that continues to evolve every single season. For such an accomplished coach as LeBeau, it would have been easy to succumb to your ego and refuse to adapt to survive.