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Insider Only Off-season: Steelers defensive scheme has become too reliant on Polamalu, Smith

A lot of Steeler fans were upset because they couldn’t watch their team play in the playoffs this year. Well, if you watched the Green Bay/Arizona game Sunday night. you actually did watch the Steelers.
On both sides of the ball. In the same game
Two good quarterbacks. Two good receiving corps. Two offenses using the pass. And two awful, awful defenses.
Anyone who wanted to watch the Black and Gold in the playoffs, but saw that game instead., got their wish. That’s exactly what a Steeler playoff game would’ve looked like.
A close game. A blown lead. A comeback. And somewhere between 75-90 total points. Maybe they would’ve won. Maybe they wouldn’t have. But I do know this, watching the defense on a grand stage like the playoffs would’ve been the equivalent of dental surgery.
The Pittsburgh Steeler defense in 2009 stunk. There is no other way to say it. Quarterbacks such as Bruce Gradkowski, Matt Cassel, and Tyler Thigpen proved that. And the biggest reason the Steeler defense stunk was because Troy Polmalu and Aaron Smith were hurt most of the year.
No, I’m not excusing the guys who did play. Yes, the cornerbacks are awful. Yes, James Farrior is too old. Yes, the likes of James Harrison, Ryan Clark, and Lawrence Timmons regressed in 2009. And no, the back ups for Polamalu and Smith just aren’t good enough. But the presence of Polamalu and Smith would’ve covered up those warts well enough for the Steelers to at least beat the likes of Cleveland, or Oakland, or Kansas City.
And that would’ve gotten them into the playoffs.
Here is Pittsburgh’s biggest problem on defense: They don’t have an answer for when #43 &/or #91 are out of the line-up. That stats prove it. They won 3-of-5 with Aaron Smith healthy. They won 4-of-5 in games that Troy Polamalu dressed. Without those two the results were a nightmare. And even some of the games the Steelers won with Polamalu and Smith sidelined were nail biters that didn’t have to be because of bad defense (i.e. Miami in week 17).
The bottom line is that the defense has become too reliant on the presence of these two men.

Without them healthy, the defense fails. The secondary needs Polamalu to roam around and make plays and turnovers. He also makes it difficult for opposing teams to scheme.
The defense needs Smith’s presence against the run. He’s also, still, their most important pass rushing defensive end. That’s true not only in terms of personal sacks and pressures. But Smith is also the best Pittsburgh has when it comes to occupying blockers that are trying to take away the oncoming pass rush from the Steeler linebackers.
It’s funny how coach Mike Tomlin simultaneously admits, and dismisses the theory that Smith and Polamalu are irreplaceable. Just take these contradicting quotes from Tomlin during his season ending press conference as examples.
On the absence of Aaron Smith: “He’s a special guy. When you lose him, it hurts.”
On the absence of Troy Polamalu: “Troy is a unique kind of a player, I acknowledge that. But Baltimore played a lot of football this year without Ed Reed, and they’re preparing (for the playoffs)”.
Hmm, good point coach. But maybe the Ravens have more talent spread throughout their defense than you do. Or maybe Baltimore’s scheme can handle the loss of a Reed or a Terrell Suggs for a while.
Yours doesn’t seem to have that flexibility.
Coach didn’t seem to like it when I advanced this theory to him at his press conference.
Question: “Mike, you used the word ‘special’ to describe Aaron, ‘unique’ to describe Troy. Are they so ‘special’ and ‘unique’ that the system as it currently is aligned is too reliant on them?
Tomlin, his voice rising and his gestures becoming animated: “No. Guys, I’m not going to sit up here and make excuses about guys that miss stretches of games. I’m so over that. You guys know me. I don’t care about guys that are hurt. Guys are going to get hurt. Guys that play are capable of playing above the line. Anybody have any questions about anything other than guys that miss stretches of games?
Well, I’m “so over” watching Travis Kirschke and Ty Carter try to be starters in the NFL. And so are most Steeler fans. Tomlin and his players love to throw around phrases such as “next man up” and/or “the standard of expectation doesn’t slip due to injury.” That sounds good. But it’s not practical. Anyone who thinks that Carter and Kirschke can do the same things that Polamalu and Smith can doesn’t know what they are watching.
A caller to my 105.9 The X morning actually asked me: “Why don’t the Steelers just go out and just get another two guys like Troy Polamlau to back him up?”
Good question. And while that’s happening maybe the Penguins can find themselves another Jaromir Jagr to play on Sidney Crosby’s wing. And the Pirates can sign “another” Barry Bonds to bat clean up this year.
Apparently these guys just grow on trees.
Before 2010’s season starts, the Steelers better find that tree. Or they better tweak their current defense to allow other star players to make the plays Polamalu and Smith usually make. Or Tomlin and Dick Lebeau need to hide the deficiencies of their reserves. Because if #43 and #91 get hurt again next year (and they probably both will for a little while) their defense, as it is stacked right now, will fail again.

About The Author

Tim Benz

TIOPS Columnist

Tim Benz can be heard on the Pittsburgh Steelers Radio Network post game show and M-F 10-1 on TribLive Radio

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