There was multi-layered hype leading up to the Pittsburgh Steelers versus the Baltimore Ravens game. The winner of this game would just delay the victor from getting the first thing “smoking” out of town opposite of any route leading to the post-season.
My next few columns will focus on a few issues that the Steelers have to address. Let’s begin with the defense.
Certain players are becoming so long in the tooth that their fangs are causing sparks to fly as a result of scraping the ground. Case in point: Defensive end Travis Kirschke, 13 years in the league, nose tackle Casey Hampton, nine years, linebacker James Farrior, 13 seasons, D-lineman Chris Hoke, nine years. In the secondary ,Tyrone Carter has seen 10 autumns. For Deshea Townsend, 12 home openers and Ryan Clark eight years. Now ordinarily that would be copasetic if not for the fact that the new millennium offenses of the NFL are not built upon the three yards and a pile of dust variety that our grandfathers used to enjoy.
Nowadays, linebackers and D-backs are required to deal with four and five receiver spreads. Aside from covering wideouts in certain zone blitz coverages, they have to contend with shadowing hybrid athletes such as tight ends and running backs gifted with warp speed who are related more to wide receivers and track stars than Hall-of-Fame greats Mike Ditka and Jim Brown. Most of the time quarterbacks drool like newborn infants when they break the huddle, line up and see linebackers with 10 or 12 years in the league poised to cover a running back or a 6’-6, 4.5-second tight end somewhere out in the flats.
James Farrior is a warrior and leader with heart and smarts. However, those attributes will not be of any use when Farrior and other aging linebackers are forced with blanketing running backs such as Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Ray Rice of the Ravens who have smoke coming off their shoes, blazing out of the offensive backfield en route to a big gain or a TD.
Let me break it down for you. More often than not when it comes to human physiology, a 30-year-old man can catch a five-year-old but when that five-year-old becomes 15 and the 30-year-old becomes 40, I will bet all of my available yen, rubles, dollars, pesos and francs that the 15-year-old win the race, except if you’re ex-Redskins corner Darrell Green, who at times appears to be ageless. However, by and large, if a defensive player is responsible for containing an offensive player who is 12 or 13 years younger, as Dandy Don Meredith would say, “turn out the lights, the party’s over.”
Whether the Steelers gain entry into the postseason remains to be seen but it is painfully obvious that the Pittsburgh squad does not have to rebuild their D-line for the 2010 season, they may just have to blow it up and start over. That line is not original; it is an old liars club saying. When one of the leaders of the liars club was asked about the worst house that he had ever seen, he replied “He once saw a house so bad that it had to blown up before it was fit to be remodeled.” The Steelers defensive line is not quite that bad but it is knocking on the door. If you cannot continually put pressure on the opposing team’s quarterback then your defensive backfield will almost always be on “Gilligan’s Island.” The key to a great defensive backfield almost always begins with the boys up front. In 2008, the Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau had the luxury of rotating his aging group and the results were sparkling. However, key injuries and different offensive philosophies employed this season against the Steelers did not allow him the same comforts. When the defensive line is tired the enemy’s wide receivers are presented with more occasions to get open, especially when their quarterback sometimes has enough time to drink a mint julep while going through his progressions.
Rookie defensive end Evander “Ziggy” Hood, when allowed to compete, shows flashes of brilliance and if he remains healthy his presence bodes well for the future of the defensive line and will certainly be a force to be reckoned with. Defensive end Nick Eason seems to be now pulling his weight as well but there are still some major age and injury issues in the defensive secondary especially at right cornerback and at strong and free safety.
If Pittsburgh and that is a huge “if,” makes the playoffs, how on God’s green earth are they going to put pressure on the quarterback? If they adjust for the passing game it seems as if they are torn apart by the running game, causing a huge time of possession deficit to occur. If they come up to stop the run, wide receivers will be tiptoeing through the tulips of the end zone so often they could possibly more often than not be mistaken for “Tiny Tim.”
Pittsburgh will not always have the aid of the refs every game. The final game(s) of the season and 2010 campaign will not be a bed of roses if the aforementioned changes are not made soon. Next week, the offense.
(Aubrey Bruce can be reached at email@example.com)