Ron Cook: Blame falls on players, not coaches, for Steelers' collapse

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I spent hours and hours last week trying to come up with reasons why the Steelers should replace one or both of their coordinators, Todd Haley and Dick LeBeau. Someone has to pay the price for this miserable season, the team’s second in a row. It’s not going to be head coach Mike Tomlin, who is blessed to work for the most patient and supportive owners in all of sports. But why not Haley? LeBeau? Both?

I wasted my time.

I didn’t come up with a single legitimate reason to get rid of either man.

Change just for the sake of change makes no sense.

The Steelers’ problem is personnel, not coaching. That’s especially true with their defense, which has been so bad this season after being so good for so long. LeBeau still is one of the best defensive minds in the game. It’s not as if he started taking stupid pills a few months ago. His players still respect him — adore him — and play hard for him. The trouble is they aren’t getting it done on the field. There is nothing wrong with LeBeau’s schemes, but there are major problems with the execution of those schemes.

Say it after me:

“The players aren’t good enough.”

LeBeau will be 77 at the start of next season and laughed at the reminder that he’s much older than he used to be. “I’m older than just about everybody used to be.” But he made it clear retirement isn’t in his immediate plans. “I feel great. I’ve got my strength. My health is good. I don’t see any part of the job that I can’t do. … We’ve got a lot of good men here on both sides of the ball. I’d be honored to continue working with them.”

Tomlin figures to welcome LeBeau back. When asked a few weeks ago why he still has confidence in the old coach, his answer was firm and telling. “Because he’s Dick LeBeau.”

A Hall of Famer.

This sort of massive failure by his defense is new to LeBeau. Initially, he dismissed questions about how he’s dealing with it by saying his ego isn’t what’s important. “It’s all about trying to get better each day.” But when pressed, LeBeau became a bit more expansive about all of the big plays and points the defense has allowed. “It gives you a different perspective. It makes you realize how fortunate we’ve been. We’ve never had these types of questions around here in a long time.”

LeBeau described himself as “a competitor by nature.” Late in the 2009 season, after the Steelers had a number of late-game defensive breakdowns that contributed heavily to the team finishing 9-7 and missing the playoffs, he said he wouldn’t abandon his players when they were down and promised to lead them back to better times. “I remember saying that. I think we came back to lead the league the next two seasons,” he said. “I still feel that way. I want to be with these players.”

There will be plenty of turnover on the Steelers defense for the third consecutive offseason. Good, high-priced players who made tremendous contributions to the team’s success for many years will continue to move on. The unit lost Aaron Smith, James Farrior and Chris Hoke after the 2011 season. It lost Casey Hampton, James Harrison and Keenan Lewis after last season. It could lose Brett Keisel, LaMarr Woodley, Ryan Clark and even the great Troy Polamalu after this season, although LeBeau didn’t sound as if he’s ready to give up on anyone.

“I don’t think we’re far away. I really don’t. I definitely don’t think this defense needs rebuilt. I think we still have players who can get it done. But we need to get better to be able to say that. So you just go to work every day and try to get better.”

Unlike the Steelers defense, Haley’s offense is trending up. It is playing its best football of his two-year run. Consequently, criticism of Haley has eased even if many people still think they can call the plays better than he does.

“I think the offense has been as good as it has been in a long time,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “We have some guys doing some great things.”

Roethlisberger is one. He’s having his best season, a Pro Bowl-caliber season. Antonio Brown was the NFL’s leading wide receiver most of the season. Le’Veon Bell is showing signs he’s going to be a big-time back. Heath Miller will be healthier next season. So should the offensive line, which has had a frightful injury season since Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey went out for the season on the eighth play of the first game.

But until the Steelers do the right thing and announce Haley will be back next season, there will be speculation about his relationship with Roethlisberger. Haley said he has no reason to believe the relationship isn’t just fine. Roethlisberger, clearly tired of talking about it, became emotional when asked about it again Tuesday on his radio show on 93.7 The Fan. “It’s unbelievable … I have absolutely no issues with Coach Haley. I love where this offense is right now.”

There will be minimal personnel change on the offense. Only wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders appears certain to be gone. That shouldn’t be much of a loss considering the many important passes he has dropped this season.

Firing Haley would be a much greater loss. The last thing Roethlisberger and his offense need is having to start over with a new coordinator and new system.

Sometimes, no change makes perfect sense.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the “Vinnie and Cook” show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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