By Christina Rivers
Pittsburgh Steelers fans are the type of fans who analyze everything. They watch the games, they complain about ‘bad calls’ by officials, they bicker about which player is doing better on offense or who plays better defense. They’ve been criticized by fans of other teams for being stubbornly loyal and they’ve been criticized publicly for being too critical of their own team; players and coaches alike. One looming question in the minds of many members of ‘Steeler Nation’ this season has been, ‘How are we ranked so high in the NFL in defense when it looks like our defense is struggling so much?’ A legitimate answer is deserved.
The Steelers didn’t roar into the regular season in 2012; they lost the season opener in Denver. That was followed by two wins and two losses. The two losses were to the Oakland Raiders and the Tennessee Titans, teams that are statistically ranked in the bottom tier in offense in the National Football League. In 2010, the Steelers were convinced that the numbers lied. Fans who remember the ‘glory days’ and have lived through the years of success in Pittsburgh are typically too young to remember the first 40 years of the organization. Beginning in 1933, the Steelers were abysmal. Even the Rooney family realized that they weren’t making headway in professional football, but they stuck with it. The team has never moved out of Pittsburgh and is one of the oldest franchises in the league today. They’re celebrating their 80th season.
The sports media has made comments about the Steelers’ defense being “too old”, “slowing down” and even pointed out that they seem to lack the type of discipline typical to a defense that has been feared and respected for at least three decades. Fans have begun to wonder if the media they love to challenge has a point this year.
The Steelers are behind only the San Francisco 49ers in total defense through Week 7 of the 2012 NFL season. Their statistical ranking for pass defense is second in the league (184.8 yards/game). The rush defense is ranked ninth overall (92.5 yards/game). On paper, there really isn’t a lot to complain about as far as the defense goes, so why are fans not seeing it translated onto the field? Does the math add up, so to speak? Corey Doss put it this way, “The defense is ranked second in total defense in the NFL, but I think all would agree that the defense does not look all that intimidating (six games into the season). We have lost to the Raiders who are ranked 18th in total offense, and they seemed to strike at will. We lost to the Titans who are ranked 26th in total offense, and they seemed to score at will. 290 yards for (Matt) Hasselbeck, the second-string quarterback, and 91 yards for CJ2K. What we are seeing on the field and the rankings don’t seem to mesh.”
They key to solving the ‘great mystery’ is a statistic that few people think about after they’ve seen it on the field. Usually, they get caught up in the excitement of the win or the defeat and forget about the fact that their team was wearing as much gold as what got tossed onto the field with weighted bean-bags at the end of them by officials; penalties. Some fans may have cussed the television or booed in the stands when the infractions occurred, but have no clue how those penalties affected their team in the grand scheme of things. When a penalty is thrown for a helmet-to-helmet contact infraction, they may argue on Facebook about whether it was legitimate and guess as to how much money that player will be giving to Roger Goodell on Tuesday. Penalties is the key, however, to how on-field play and the numbers in the stats sheet can be so disparate.
How it translates
The Steelers have been without key veteran play-makers this season; Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark (in Denver, due to sickle cell trait), LaMarr Woodley, James Harrison. Clark, Woodley and Harrison are back, so the defense should look great, right? Polamalu is often a one-man wrecking machine on the field, dreaded by many opponents for his incredible ability to disrupt an entire offensive scheme. Quarterbacks have learned to made audibles their best friends to fend off Polamalu’s attacks. Polamalu’s influence is huge to all of his teammates, but they still have Dick LeBeau calling in the plays and they have the same defensive scheme. Injuries don’t truly factor in, in this case.
“I think that we, as Steelers fans, are so accustomed to dominating with our defense that our play of late has us grasping for answers,” Doss added. “Then you see the ranking and it is a head-scratcher.”
Tomlin addressed the penalty issue in his weekly press conference. He pointed the finger at the most-recent penalty receivers; special teams. The special teams committed four holding penalties on kickoff and punt returns that would have been great yardage for Ben Roethlisberger and the offense to start from. Instead, they stole momentum and field position. “On special teams, we wanted to be explosive in the return game,” said Tomlin. “Penalties negated that effort. What is going on in our return game from a penalty standpoint is disturbing. We must improve in that area.” Those penalties were called against blockers, not Antonio Brown and Chris Rainey. And the heat is on. According to Tomlin, “the multiple offenders and egregious offenders are going to be watching as opposed to playing…you can take the helmet off of them and have them watch. That’s what we intend to do if they don’t improve in that area.
Through Week 7, the Steelers have been called for twenty offensive holding penalties, which includes the return game. Of offensive linemen being called, Willie Colon tops the list with six. Cornerback Ike Taylor is on a negative hot-streak having seven penalties called against him. In his last 22 games, that number equals 16. The Steelers, as a team, have been flagged 53 times (an 8.83 penalties per game average).
So many times we hear fans say that the officials have it “out for the Steelers”, but we aren’t talking about ‘replacement refs’ anymore, and game tapes show how legitimate the concern about flagrant fouls should be. This goes way beyond the scandalous head shots or crippling knee hits. This goes to the core.
Mia Dentice Carey pointed out that it “comes down to fundamentals,” and she’s correct. Every player knows what is and isn’t allowed on the field. Hands to the face; unacceptable. Chop-blocking, pushing off, hand-fighting down the field; all going to get called. Yes, players get away with infractions. Every team has their fair share of what many call ‘old-school’ thuggery and not seen that hated flag bounce on the field. The issue for the Steelers is that regardless of whether the officials are catching them all, they are observing enough penalties to hurt the team overall. That means every player in black and gold should own-up and correct the problem.
If you’re one of those fans who’ve been scratching your head like Corey, stop. There is no deep-dark mystery here. It’s really simple. The Steelers aren’t executing a disciplined defense. Once penalties are cracked-down on, the defense can be rehabituated, retooled and seasoned into the type of defense they have always prided themselves in being. It takes time and perseverance, but Coach Tomlin, Coach Haley and Coach LeBeau are just the type of men to set things right.
Stevenson Sylvester is ready to fix the problem. Larry Foote is emphatic that the Steelers have “got a lot of football left, and [they] have to turn it around.” At 3-3, it isn’t time to lay down and quit. The Steelers are still in the hunt. “As long as they make it to the playoffs, they’ll be fine. Keep the faith ‘Steeler Nation’,” Carey added. I agree. Keep the faith. After all, it could be 1933.
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Christina Rivers is freelance journalist and photographer with a life-long love of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Credentialed with the organization, Christina provides a unique perspective gained through her knowledge and understanding of Steelers history, the Rooney family and relationships with past and present players. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.