Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Steelers Season Review: Defense

This will be a four-part series of the Steelers breakdown that I put together for an analysis of the Steelers 2009 season. The installments will be looking at the offense, the defense, special teams and finally we will take a look back at every game from this season with my thoughts and the links to the game recaps. Some parts, such as the offense and defense, will be a little bit longer, other parts, such as the special teams, will be shorter because lets face it, who really wants to talk about special teams. But that is neither here nor there. Here We Go.

The Steelers season in a little more than a few weeks over so I figured it was a better time than ever to give a little season recap and see where we go from here into the offseason, draft, camp and the 2010-2011 season.

In case you have been in a cave for the past five months the Steelers finished the season 9-7 and missed out on the playoffs because of a poor conference record and tiebreakers not falling their way. The Steelers started out poorly, a 1-2 start, but bounced back and finished the first half of the season 6-2.

The second half of the season did not go as well as you might have thought. After going 6-2 with big victories over some good teams the Steelers lost five straight. It was not like they lost five straight to the best teams in the league, they lost five straight to Bengals, Chiefs, Ravens, Raiders and Browns. What a shot in the balls.

The Steelers finished up the season strong with three straight wins over Green Bay, Baltimore and Miami. Just think if the Steelers win one out of the three games against the Chiefs, Raiders or Browns then we still might be watching the Steelers now. That is neither here nor there. The middle part of the season was a disappointment to say the least. It hurts not to make the playoffs, but go check out the last ten years of Steelers football, we have been pretty good.

After the jump is the second part of the segment of recaps which includes a look at the Steelers defense and how they were mainly a letdown despite putting up better than average statistics.



DEFENSIVE LINE

The defensive line was, for the most part, solid all season. The Steelers were very good against the run where they ranked third in the NFL only giving up 89.9 yards per game. You want to know how good this defense has been? Finishing third feels like the defensive line let us down. The defensive line is intricate in taking up blocks and letting the linebackers roam free to make tackles.

Playing in the 3-4 system your down linemen are very important to the system. You have a fault at one of the positions and it will radiate throughout your defense and the offense will smell blood and attack. The defensive line was not at full strength for most of the season as Aaron Smith was lost mid way through the season and Travis Kirschke was hurt near the end of the season so that threw Nick Eason into the fold during the most important stretch run.

Big Snack played another pro bowl caliber season and was a force this past season. His backup, Chris Hoke also was very important in this defense and played well when he got his snaps this season. The ends also held their end. Losing Aaron Smith was a huge blow to the line. Smith is probably one of the best run stoppers in the league and losing him for the second time in three seasons really showed how important he was. Ray Rice broke the Steelers for over 100 yards for the first 100 yard rushers in over 35 games.

Ziggy Hood also got to see some valuable playing time in big games and actually held his own. Due to all the injuries Hood got his feet wet and got to give Steelers Nation, and the coaching staff, a good look at him in game action which may have never had. Hood made eight tackles and a sack in his rookie season. Solid showing from a coach that isn’t usually too in tune with playing rookies and with this playing time it should help out his progress for next year.

LINEBACKERS

The Steelers have always been known as one of the best linebacking cores in the NFL. This year was a little bit different than past because we are finally starting to see some of the age creep into the linebackers. There was plenty to be happy about in the pass rushing with LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, but never at the same time. There might be a lot to talk about on why that was but make no mistake; we never saw what it was like to see both of these guys play a great game at the same time.

First for the good, LaMarr Woodley ending the season was just a man possessed on the outside. LaMarr had a slow start to the season but battled back hard and finished the season where he finished with 11.5 sacks in the last eight games. He finished the season by post back-to-back two sack games against Baltimore and Miami. He was far and away the best defensive player that was actually on the field this season for the Steelers and he showed it. At the beginning of the season LaMarr was just missing by a half step of getting to the QB but by the end of the year there was no way you were going to stop him. He finished the year with four games with two sacks and also made ten tackles in a 23-20 win over the Baltimore Ravens and was key into forcing the Brett Favre interception that Keyaron Fox took to the house to seal the Steelers win over the Vikings.

James Harrison is the other side of the Steelers version of the “two-headed monster” and after a fast start Harrison really slowed down during the end of the season. Looking at his stats it is literally an exact opposite of what LaMarr Woodley did. Harrison racked up eight of his 10 sacks in a five game stretch. During the last six games of the season Harrison registered zero sacks and only forced one fumble. I am not going to sit here any say that James had a bad season, because as the reigning Defensive MVP teams would come up with game plans to just stop him but the team could have used a little more production from him down the stretch, especially during the Baltimore/Oakland/Cleveland game where one win would have made the difference between making the playoffs and sitting at home. To be honest, Harrison is the least of the worries; he will bounce back next year. I am not worried, but it was worth mentioning.

The inside linebackers for the team were somewhat of a disappointment this year and really hurt the Steelers in some aspects. James Farrior played a decent season but was a step slow in a lot of aspects of the game this year. The play that should come to everyone’s mind is the 4th and 10 play in the Cincinnati game that Farrior could not close on to end the game late in the fourth quarter. Two years ago, hell even last year, Farrio makes that play and this season is totally different. Lawrence Timmons was a starter this season for the first time and between injuries and inexperience he just didn’t look like the big time play maker that he needed to be. LT was not the greatest of tacklers most of the season and just didn’t have that power to go along with amazing athletic ability that he possesses.

LT is also noted as being a good pass rusher, and for that he was. LT had seven sacks on the season and made 78 tackles while missing one game due to injury. Timmons played through most of the season with varying injuries which I am sure hampered his play in some sort. I expect much more next year, but as this being his first full season of action I guess we couldn’t expect to play like Farrior in midseason form.

What really has me excited was the play of Keyaron Fox this year. He stepped in while LT was hurting during the season and filled in and did a very nice job. Fox is a very good special teams player and a really solid tackler. Fox played sparingly throughout the year but when he did he just did his job. Fox scored the touchdown in the Minnesota game that sealed the deal and a week later he filled in for Timmons in the Denver game and recorded nine tackles, eight of them solo. You are more than likely looking at Farrior’s replacement when he finally gets released or retires and I feel good knowing that he is in the system and already has proven that he can play.

SECONDARY

To be quite honest this was one of the two most disappointing parts of the entire Steelers team this year (the other being the ST). Team threw at will on the secondary and after Troy went out with injuries there were no answers and the secondary play went so far downhill that it was beyond repair in-season. Most of the season Ike Taylor and Ryan Clark were the only starters in the secondary with Bryant McFadden (did not resign) and Troy (injured) not in the lineup this year. Tyrone Carter and Will Gay were the replacements and they were just not up to the task this year.

When Troy was in the lineup this defense was at its best. He covers a lot of problems up and can make plays that no other football players can make. Case in point was the interception that he made in the first game of the season against Tennessee. Backpedaling and one-handed it was a thing of beauty and one of the best plays of the 2009-10 season. Alas Troy was hurt and he was missed.

Tyrone Carter tried to fill in but he just couldn’t do the job, not for Troy that is. Tyrone spent one game filling in for Ryan Clark when the Steelers went to Denver and Troy was in the lineup and he made two picks, one for a touchdown, and AFC Defensive Player of the Week. Ty has always been a run stopping safety with problems occurring when he has to cover in the secondary. This year was no different. Ty just couldn’t cover the space (who can) of what Troy can do and this also hurt Ryan Clark as he had to be a more stay at home safety when typically he is able to roam a little more and not have to worry about Troy, but he had to worry about Ty.

Ryan Clark suffered just as much from Troy not being back there with him. Ryan’s coverage slipped this year for unknown reasons and he just had a down year, but that is actually the story of the whole secondary. Ryan is known as the guy in the secondary who comes up and make the big hit (ask Wes Welker) and this year it just didn’t seem to be there. He was always one step away in coverage and just didn’t seem to be in sync all year. I am sure there are many factors for that but he is not excluded from the poor secondary play.

Will Gay, far and away, was the worst player in the secondary. Game in and game out Gay was getting picked on and it really showed. He was the fill in for Bryant McFadden when he left via free agency to sign with Pittsburgh West, err Arizona Cardinals. It seemed as if every team came in and said we want to pick on Will Gay and we will do it until he gets taken out. It got so bad for him this season that every time a pass was thrown he would fall down. I do not know if that was on purpose to kinda say hey I fell down its not bad coverage or that he just got tired of chasing down receivers. I digress on Will, if you watched any Steelers games you know how bad it was.

The rest of the secondary was hit or miss. Ryan Mundy was pretty much in his rookie season after being hurt last year and got a lot of playing time this year due to the injuries and such and I rarely noticed him so I guess that was good. The one glaring bad spot was when he tried to decapitate a Raiders player at the goal line to give the Raiders another play and the eventual game winner. Belch. Deshea Townsend also was in the secondary and like Farrior he showed his age and just couldn’t make the big plays like he could last year. Townsend did a nice job of filling in for Will Gay when he finally got benched later in the season but not even an act of God could save this secondary from the dismal season.

When you look at all the comebacks that the Steelers let up most of it was given up via the defense. One point that really comes to mind is during the Oakland game when the Steelers blew three leads, two in the fourth quarter. Louis Murphy made a catch in between three of the Steelers DB’s to convert and later caught a TD pass from 11 yards out with nine seconds left to get the win for Bruce Gradkowski and the Raiders. Repeat that scenario seven more times and that is how the defense will be remembered this season. Blown leads and blown chances.

Overall the defense was a pretty big disappointment this year. Even though they ranked 5h in the NFL it was just a tough year to watch. No lead was safe and even when the Steelers did win it was tough to watch. This isn’t the end of the line for the Steelers as we know then. The defense has carried this team for years and years and years and a small down year isn’t going to kill the franchise like most people are making it out to be. Next year the defense will be back to what it usually is. There were a lot of bad times but nothing will be the Minnesota game when the defense stepped up against a team that is currently in the NFC Championship game and score two defensive touchdowns. Just be glad we are not from Cleveland where their season is defined by one win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The defense was sub par this year but remember it can always be worse, much worse.

What do you guys think? Agree? Disagree? Let me know what you think in the comments. Have at it.

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