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What Can the Steelers do to Improve Their Pass Defense in Season?
Pittsburgh Steelers 2014
Ike Taylor's return only brings more struggles
Coming into this season, it was apparent that the Steelers secondary would be a weakness for their team defense in 2014. It was not apparent how much of a weakness their secondary would be until the last couple of weeks where the Steelers were not able to get to the opposing passer. The return of Ike Taylor was supposed to strengthen the Steeler's secondary after struggling mightily against the Tennessee Titans heading into the bye week. Taylor's return did not have the desired effect however, as he was beaten multiple times due to his poor technique and bad habits that were on display this past Sunday. While this may have been a result of rust and lack of sharpness from being out for an extended period of time, there is a real problem in the Steelers secondary that needs to be addressed if the team hopes to finish the season strong enough to make the playoffs. Cornerback Cortez Allen was benched recently for poor play, but ever since he was benched, the Steelers secondary has struggled even more. On a team that does not get much of a pass rush, the Steelers need to have their most athletic defensive backs in coverage, so that they can run with and tackle receivers after they make the catch.
What is the most athletic combination of defensive backs for the Steelers?
Despite Troy Polamalu's age, the Steelers decided to bring him back this past offseason. With his recent injury and age catching up with, he is no longer among the group of defensive backs that add the most athleticism to that unit for the Steelers. While this does not mean that Troy Polamalu should be completely absent from the Steelers defense in the coming weeks, this does mean that Steelers fans should be seeing more of a young athletic defender at safety, in Shamarko Thomas. Free safety Mike Mitchell has taken plenty of criticism for not showing the play making ability that he was known for in Carolina last season, but after twelve games played the Steelers coaching staff needs to be able to find a way to give him the same opportunities he had to make explosive plays with short burst quickness on the back end of the defense. This is going to require the Steelers to have Ike Taylor on the field, where he will need to shake off the rust in order to be included among the Steelers most athletic defensive backs. Since Cortez Allen's absence has hurt the team's pass defense, it is safe to assume that he has now made the necessary adjustments and needs to be back in the starting lineup as well. Brice McCain, Antwon Blake and William Gay are all players who have gained valuable experience lately, but are best suited to playing coverage on slot receivers. This leaves the Steelers with their best base defensive package including four defensive backs in Mike Mitchell, Shamarko Thomas, Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen.
What can the Steelers do to improve coverage technique?
Some of the Steelers recent issues with technique have been a result of their corners getting greedy in coverage after some recent interceptions. In order for the Steelers to play successful pass defense in the final weeks of the season, they are going to need to show their opponents plenty of looks with two safeties over the top and man coverage underneath. This could help the Steelers corners to get their technique down when they are forced to lock in on a man in order to complete their coverage assignment. The cornerbacks from the Steelers have been burned recently along the right sideline when they have looked back at the quarterback too early. Press coverage techniques will force them to keep their eyes on their man from the snap of the football until their man shows them that the football is in the air. By disrupting receivers at the line of scrimmage, the Steelers corners will then allow Mike Mitchell to play to his strengths as he gets over the top of the disrupted vertical routes to make plays on the football. Since the Steelers will not be able to play man coverage every down, they will need their defensive backs to play fundamentally sound football by staying in their coverage lanes and breaking down to make clean open field tackles to prevent run after the catch. The big plays that have hurt the Steelers secondary recently, can be avoided through the practice of proper technique and the use of proper angles to make stops in the open field.
Can pass rush help the secondary for the Steelers?
The Steelers pass rush has been nearly absent the past two games as they have recorded one sack for zero yardage in games where Drew Brees and Zach Mettenberger had their way with the Pittsburgh defense. The key to defensive success when a team has an average to below average secondary, is to rush the passer enough to disrupt the timing of the offense at the quarterback position. The secondary for the Steelers has not gotten the job done overall this season, but improving the defensive scheme to get more pressure on opposing passers would go a long way in helping the Steelers secondary. Jarvis Jones was expected to make a return to the lineup in the game against the Saints, but without seeing action in Sunday's game, this young pass rusher was not able to make the impact that the Steelers' defense has been lacking this season. With Cameron Heyward leading the way on the Steelers' defensive front, young athletic defenders such as Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt and Jarvis Jones, need to get pressure on opposing passers in the coming weeks in order to keep the Steelers' playoff hopes alive.
The Steelers' defensive unit currently appears to be in shambles, but they do have enough to pick up the pieces in a rallying effort to make the postseason. With some new looks in what has become a predictable zone blitzing scheme for Dick Lebeau, the Steelers could make some significant headway in getting their defensive backs to use proper technique with which to limit opposing passing games. With two games coming up against the Bengals, and a road game on the schedule against the Falcons, the Steelers will need to be at their best late in the season as they look to earn the three victories needed to qualify for the AFC playoffs. Now the question is, can the Steelers put the proper technique and scheme into action enough to get the job done late in the 2014 season?