This was supposed to be the year the Steelers sucked.
With Hall-of-Fame coordinator Dick LeBeau gone from the halls of Heinz field, the Steelers defense was a candidate for the scrap heap. Teams around the league were probably jumping for joy when the news circulated about LeBeau leaving. But the Pittsburgh Steelers are a resilient bunch. They have bonded together under a new defensive commander and the D is starting to dominate again.
Following two rather mediocre seasons for the Steelers defense, Mike Tomlin made no promises about the future of LeBeau. For 13 years the defense was overseen by a man who was meticulous about the way his schemes were run. LeBeau controlled two Super Bowl caliber defensive squads for the Steelers. His classic 3-4 defense featured the zone blitz and it drove coordinators crazy.
As reported by the NFL Network, LeBeau may have been pressured into retirement. The same happened when Bruce Arians “retired” after the 2012 campaign. LeBeau was grateful for the time spent in Black & Yellow.
“It was a lot of fun,” LeBeau said. “It’s just time to take a break.”
But it’s 2015 and the Steelers find themselves in the thick of a heated AFC North race. This is not supposed to be happening. They are supposed to be getting dismantled by teams and struggling in last place. That’s not what first-year Steelers’ defensive coordinator Keith Butler is feeling. He has turned the Pittsburgh defense around and has them playing like monsters.
Beating the Arizona Cardinals 25-13 is proof that the Steelers’ young talent is ready to get real nasty with the competition. They have taken the mantle and grown up fast. Arizona’s offense was ranked No. 1, going into Sunday’s matchup, and led the league in scoring at 38 points per game.
While they rank among the NFL’s bottom third in yards allowed per game (376.5), the Steelers have the league’s seventh-best run defense (93.3 yards per game) and, most importantly, are allowing 18.0 points per game, fifth-best in the league.
When the Steelers lost Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu, many fans were thinking the end of a dominant era was near. But the fight isn’t lost with the Steelers and they are starting to play like champions again. They have held two of the NFL’s top scoring machines under their average. The Patriots and Cardinals were expected to blow the Steelers out. Both games were competitive and close.
So far, the Steelers have been a bend-but-don’t-break unit, when it comes to defense. But the Arizona game was one that showed the X’s were beginning to understand the new language of Butler’s brand of football. Free safety Mike Mitchell was a hero, in the Steelers victory over the Cardinals. His ability to read Palmer was part instinct and part Butler’s teaching. Per the Erie Times-News, he credited running plays against the Steelers’ red-zone offense as a big plus.
“We compete against them every day, so when we get down there we find comfort down there,” Mitchell said. “We know that they (opponents) have to finish. When you get down there, a lot of teams might get tight. We don’t panic.”
The Steelers aren’t panicking. They’re making their opponents panic, with a fierce brand of confidence and intimidation.
They’re playing fundamental defense and having fun doing it. Not bad for a team that realizes they are starting to dominate again.
[Feature Photo by Jared Wickerham / Getty Images]