The Team

Linebacker Lawrence Timmons, pictured above (94), is congratulated after intercepting a pass against the Cardinals in October 2015 at Heinz Field. (Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)

Rebuilding a defense with titles in mind

With a championship-caliber offense, the Steelers are working to rise to that high level on the other side of the ball.

By Ed Bouchette



Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and the rest of them with their hands in the machinery have no way to judge the outcome yet, no idea if the whole thing will work.

Tearing down a great NFL defense and rebuilding it into another of championship form ranks among the most difficult tasks in football. The Steelers have done it twice since they first started winning Super Bowls. They find themselves in the midst of trying to do it a third time.

As Sid Thrift said not long after he was hired as general manager to turn around a 104-loss Pirates team, “It ain’t easy resurrecting the dead.”

Steelers Defense Rankings Since 2012

Source: Pro Football Reference (Ben Howard/Post-Gazette)

You do it piece by piece, first removing the one time great players and replacing them with new ones. It can go by fits and starts, the way it did in the 1980s after they dismantled the Steel Curtain. That “transition” dragged into the 1990s before the Blitzburgh defense would carry the day.

When that defense faded, the wait did not take as long for a new and even better one to rule through a decade of the 21st century. And now here we are, following the painful removal of more great players — Troy Polamalu, Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, Joey Porter, James Farrior, Ike Taylor, et al. The Steelers find themselves in the middle of a transition that has seen their defensive rankings tumble from No. 1 in the NFL in 2012 to No. 13, to No. 18 and then to last season’s No. 21.

Will this season reverse that trend as the Steelers pour time, talent and money into rebuilding their defense?

“I’m probably the type of guy that I’m in the midst of the rebuild before I even acknowledge that it exists,” Mike Tomlin said, reflecting on the process that he came so close to acknowledging. “I don’t even view it in that way. I just try to meet the needs of the day and provide the guys what it is they need to be, what we desire them to be.

“Oftentimes, you look back at work and realize what it was that you were transitioning in some form or fashion. I don’t know that I’m capable of seeing it when I’m in the midst of it.”

That they are is of little debate. Over the past two drafts, the Steelers have chosen 15 players — 11 of them on defense. Starters remaining from that 2012 No. 1-ranked defense? One, Lawrence Timmons (another, James Harrison, is now a backup).

Steelers defenders, pictured above, cornerback Ike Taylor (24), cornerback William Gay (22), cornerback Keegan Lewis (23), strong safety Troy Polamalu (43), defensive end Brett Keisel (99) and safety Ryan Mundy (29) look on from the sidelines during a 2011 victory against the Jaguars at Heinz Field. That season, the Steelers defense rose to No. 1 in the NFL (4,348 yards allowed) and would stay on top of the rankings in 2012. Since then, the team has fallen to No. 21 (5,809). (Keith Srakocic/Associated Press)

“We had a core group of guys who were in their mid-20s when I got here,” Tomlin noted of his 2007 hiring. “We rode a nice wave with those guys, they got into their mid-30s, and that’s what happens. And now we have a new group who are in their early- to mid-20s. Some of the guys in this group were fortunate enough to be pups in that other group, guys like Lawrence Timmons and Cam Heyward, when they get an opportunity to teach those who are new what they saw when they were pups.”

How difficult is it tearing down and then rebuilding one dominating defense to another? Far more difficult than building an offense, provided that offense has found its elite quarterback. The Steelers have had a successful offense ever since Ben Roethlisberger took over as a rookie in 2004, and today they might have the best in the NFL. It can be one big stroke of luck to get that kind of quarterback, and without one, structuring a competent offense may be more difficult than putting together a defense.

“You need a lot of people and depth, you need a lot of moving parts,” said Tom Modrak, executive director of the BLESTO scouting combine in which the Steelers belong.

“The offensive line is all technique and toughness. You can help it, but if you have Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell, it’s tough getting ready for.

“On defense, though, you have to have a bunch of them. You can’t have average, you have to have good players all across the board and depth.”

There is no one player who can carry a defense the way a quarterback can an offense. Take it from the man who experienced the great Steel Curtain days and then was charged by Chuck Noll to begin rebuilding that defense in the early 1980s.

Steelers Draft Picks Since 2013

Source: Pro Football Reference (Ben Howard/Post-Gazette)

“That was tough,” said Woody Widenhofer, now semi-retired but still teaching part-time and helping coach high school football in the Dallas area. “As a matter of fact, we changed our style of defense, to the 3-4. We lost a lot of defensive linemen who were great, great players and we felt we probably had more linebackers we could put on the field than we had defensive linemen.’’

That was 1982, and the Steelers remain a 3-4 base defense entering their 35th consecutive season. But there was no magic pill for a turnaround when they switched from the 4-3. It was a drawn-out process. The Steelers would slip to low defense rankings for much of the next decade until that Blitzburgh revival began in 1993 with the help of a new tool: Free agency.

“I would say now it’s even tougher than ever,” Widenhofer said, “because of the styles of offense that changed completely, wide open offenses. You have to be able to put five and maybe six defensive backs on the field at one time and have them mesh in there and still be able to stop the run.

“I agree 100 percent, that it’s tougher to rebuild a defense than an offense, provided you have the quarterback.”

And why is that?

“There’s so much in the league, offensively, that is driven by the quarterback position,” said former Steelers and Buffalo Bills executive Tom Donahoe, now senior personnel executive for the Philadelphia Eagles. “If you’re very fortunate enough to get Ben Roethlisberger or Aaron Rodgers or someone like that, then you have a chance to fill in on that side of the ball. It’s easier to build on that side of the ball if you have the right quarterback.”

Donahoe was charged with helping to rebuild not one, but two great defenses in Pittsburgh.

As director of football operations, he ran the show that found some of the talent in the late 1980s and early 1990s that became the Blitzburgh defense — Rod Woodson, Carnell Lake, Greg Lloyd, Levon Kirkland, Joel Steed, Chad Brown, Kevin Greene, Ray Seals, etc. And the new coaching staff headed by Bill Cowher did not hurt.

“With Cowher’s background on defense, and then he had Dom Capers, Dick LeBeau, Marvin Lewis, John Mitchell, that was a heck of a staff,” Donahoe said. “That doesn’t hurt, either. You get good players, but you still have to get them coached up. Dick LeBeau, he and Dom Capers really helped to get us up to speed quickly. It was a good combination of coaches who knew what they were doing and players who could play.”

2015 NFL Team Defense Statistics

Source: Pro Football Reference (Ben Howard/Post-Gazette)

Their defense helped put the Steelers in the Super Bowl in the 1995 season and nearly two others in 1994 and 1997. When those players left, Donahoe got busy rebuilding their next great defense by drafting Joey Porter, Aaron Smith, Deshea Townsend, etc., before Colbert finished the job by adding Troy Polamalu and the aforementioned others in the new century.

“It takes time because when you look at players defensively, it’s hard to have a good defense if you don’t have pretty good cornerbacks or a couple guys who can rush the passer and then the ability on the interior to stop the run. You’re talking about a lot of bodies to have in those positions to at least build a foundation for your defense.

“It’s hard to get that in one or two drafts. The Steelers generally don’t get into the free-agent market heavily and sometimes it can take a little bit longer.”

How long? Have the Steelers turned the corner on defense, stopped the steady decline of the past several years? Will all those draft picks they devoted to their defense — including the top three this year and the first two in each of 2014 and 2015 — turn them into a force quickly enough to help one of the best offenses in the game compete for another Super Bowl?

Heyward, their first-round draft pick in 2011, said he never thought about joining a defense in transition because he was more concerned about the job at hand.

With their first pick in the 2016 NFL draft, the Steelers selected Miami cornerback Artie Burns, pictured above with coach Mike Tomlin and president Art Rooney II. (Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)

“I thought we’ve gradually gotten better,” Heyward said. “We got really key draft picks, our draft picks have grown, and our older guys have continued to stay healthy and they’ve gone in different roles.”

He’s not alone in believing they are on their way back.

“I think the Steelers have done a fabulous job,” said Gil Brandt, a senior analyst for who was player personnel vice president for the Dallas Cowboys from their beginning through the end of the 1980s.

Brandt is big on putting pressure on the quarterback, and while the Steelers defense did not rank highly in yards allowed last season, their 48 sacks were third most in the league and 15 more than the previous season.

“Look at the top four sacking teams in the NFL last season,” Brandt said. “Denver [52], New England [49], Pittsburgh and Kansas City [47], all made the playoffs. And Carolina [44] was sixth. The teams in the Super Bowl had 96 sacks between them.

“The difference is what makes a defense successful or almost successful is the team that gets the sacks, not ones who get the hurries. That little bit of speed makes the difference.”

Speed is another reason why Brandt thinks the Steelers are transitioning quickly to another good defense.

Pictured above, Cam Heyward and Ryan Shazier sack 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick during a September 2015 victory at Heinz Field. The Steelers finished the season third in the NFL with 48 sacks. (Peter Diana/Post-Gazette)

“What Pittsburgh did is they found the guys who had speed. That kid from Notre Dame [Stephon Tuitt] could make plays and so was Heyward because of speed. If you are going to have a dominant playmaker, you have to have speed. That linebacker [Ryan Shazier], he was off the charts.”

Heyward, Tuitt, Shazier, Bud Dupree, Artie Burns, Sean Davis — all top-two draft picks — can they form the next wave of a great Steelers defense? Or is it still too early to ask?

“Defense is about communication and working together, and having an understanding of what people around you are doing,” Tomlin said. “And that takes time.

“If you’re installing a defense or installing a defense with new people, first they have to get to a level of understanding to what they need to do, and then that grows into a larger global understanding to what goes on around them. And you can never be great until you get a percentage of your men who understands that.”

Has that transition taken hold yet, or close to it?

“That’s why these conversations are always difficult if you’re truly being honest,” Tomlin said. “I’m glad Cam [said] the same thing because his mentality is much like mine — we’re probably well down the road before we even acknowledge what we’re doing.”

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