Facing an important game in Cincinnati on Sunday night, the Pittsburgh Steelers (2-3) have lost a fourth-quarter lead in four of their five games this season. It’s one thing to be victimized by a Peyton Manning comeback, but they have lost on last-second field goals in Oakland and Tennessee; two teams who are otherwise a combined 1-8.
Many will point to legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau not having all of his starters healthy due to a rash of injuries. In a given week that could have meant Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, or Ryan Clark.
Cornerback Ike Taylor, healthy but struggling mightily, lashed out at local media for criticizing this year’s defense. Taylor says to look at the facts, and “if you want to go by numbers, we're not doing as bad as what they say we're doing."
Well as a compiler of football statistics and a Pittsburgh native who has experienced every single high and low, here's the truth:
The Steelers' defense is vastly overrated, just like much of LeBeau’s coaching career has been.
Known as the father of the zone blitz, which creates illusions of pressure, LeBeau has also created an illusion that his long career is full of defensive coaching success. That's not the case.
Defense does not excel when it matters most
Blasphemy, you say? Well, LeBeau would have quickly been “Juan Castillo’d” out of a job in today’s game. In his first attempt as a defensive coordinator with the Cincinnati Bengals (1984-1991), the Bengals’ average rank in defensive points allowed was 20.3 (there were only 28 teams then). Just once did they rank higher than 17 (No. 9 in 1989), and they were dead last in points and yards in his final season.
The most sustained coaching success LeBeau has had started when he returned to the Steelers in 2004. Since then Pittsburgh has gone 101-46 (.687) with two Super Bowl wins.
But two more important events happened in Pittsburgh in 2004: the drafting of franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu moving into the starting lineup. Each player has been the team MVP on their side of the ball.
Since 2007, no defense has allowed fewer points or yards than the Steelers, ranking No. 1 in the league in fewest points allowed three times (No. 2 in 2007).
That sounds nice, but you have to ask yourself what you want from a defense.
Should it shut down the Cleveland Browns and their annually different quarterback twice a year, or do you want a defense that will show up against the best competition too? Do you want a defense that can finish the job, or a defense that’s going to fall apart in the clutch?
You can have all the top-ranked statistical defenses you want. If you cannot make a play to win a game or perform anywhere close to your usual level against the best of the best, then the only reality is your defense is overrated.
Stating the facts
Since 2007, Pittsburgh’s defense has allowed 20 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, which is tied with Green Bay for the league's second most.
Twenty is too high for a defense that allows the league's fewest points and yards, but none of that has mattered when it comes to crunch time.
Since 2007, the Steelers’ defense has faced a total of 125 drives in the fourth quarter and overtime when tied or leading by 1-8 points. They have allowed 22 touchdowns and 25 field goals (231 points). It works out to 1.85 points per drive, which would have ranked 21st in the league in 2011, a below-average defense. Fifteen of the touchdown drives have been at least 70 yards in length, and nine were more than 80 yards.
Pittsburgh has allowed 20 game-winning drives, 12 game-tying drives, and 10 go-ahead drives which came during games where the offense would regain the lead for a win. They also allowed five field goals when leading by 5-7 points. That means 78 “stops”, though some of those drives were in the final seconds when the opponent had no realistic opportunity.
The scariest parts are the context for how some of these drives happened, and to think how big that number would be if the offense did not bail out the defense. Even Curtis Painter led an 80-yard game-tying touchdown drive last season in Indianapolis against LeBeau’s defense before a Roethlisberger game-winning drive.
If the Redskins had better quarterback play, they would have been able to turn more of those 24 losses into wins. Since 2007, Washington quarterbacks have 12 game-winning drives. The Steelers have 17, with Ben Roethlisberger engineering 16 of them.
But even Roethlisberger cannot answer if he does not have enough time left.
The average game-winning drive (in regulation) allowed by the Steelers has come with 3:04 left in the fourth quarter, which is the fifth-smallest amount of time for any team. The less time, the harder it is to answer. The Patriots have the worst average time to answer (just 1:25 left). The Jets have had 7:01 left (the most time), so shame on their offense.
This table looks at how much time was left in the game when the Steelers allowed the points on their late game-winning drives. In parenthesis is the league rank for that category, and the Steelers rank as the worst in everything except for overtime drives, where they are only one behind Green Bay and Miami.
Not only is allowing 10 game-winning drives in the final two minutes the worst in the league, but the Steelers have somehow surrendered the game-losing points a league-worst nine times in the last 40 seconds of the game (no other team has more than six). Maybe the only thing worse than that are the seven times in which they have allowed the winning points in the final 0:15.
You just leave your offense no real time to answer in that situation, and nearly half the losses have happened that way.
The context behind some of the losses is both jarring and alarming, and things only seem to be getting worse.
What has caused so many of these losses? Sure, there has been some bad luck. Keenan Lewis dropped an interception in Tennessee last week that may have turned the game. Joe Burnettt dropped a game-ending interception in that 2009 Oakland game. The league admitted to missing a holding call on Jacksonville’s big 4th-and-2 run by David Garrard in the 2007 AFC Wild Card game.
But it works both ways, and for other teams too. In 2010, Buffalo’s Stevie Johnson dropped the game-winning touchdown in overtime. He was wide open, so LeBeau barely escaped that loss. He was not so lucky last season when Torrey Smith caught the game-winning touchdown with 0:08 left after dropping one, capping off Joe Flacco’s 92-yard drive to take control of the AFC North.
CSN: Brian Urlacher, who played 13 seasons for the Bears, announced his retirement from football Wenesday on his personal twitter account.
2013 SNF Schedule
Check out the 2013 Sunday Night Football schedule.
Latest from ProFootballTalk
Video: Football from NBC Sports
Jets 'throwing the kitchen sink at the offense'
Jets coach Rex Ryan talks to the media following Wednesday's OTAs and says New York's defense is much further along than the offense, but they're throwing everything they can at the offense to get them ready for Week 1.
Check out some of the NFL cheerleaders from across the league.