Players, not coordinator, make a defense

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I was startled from casual listening to full attention last week by the pronouncement on talk radio that the New England Patriots had badly "out-schemed" the Steelers in a rout the day before.

Wow! Naive fellow that I am, I actually thought Tom Brady, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, had played a hand in that lopsided 55-31 score. And that tight end Rob Gronkowski, currently on a path to the Hall of Fame, also had something to do with it.

Little did I know it was the genius of New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels that was responsible for all those points and yards with his spectacular "out-scheming" of Dick LeBeau’s defenses. It makes you wonder how such a genius lost his job as head coach of the Denver Broncos by going 11-17 in 2008 and part of 2009.

But, of course, throwing around words like "out-schemed" and phrases like "out game-planned," are mostly utter nonsense and only serve to make the physical game of football come off as some kind of chess match.

Strategy is important. Execution is more important.

Coaches are important. Players are more important.

New England crushed the Steelers because Brady (151.8 passer rating) had one of the greatest days of his career; because Gronkowski (nine catches, 143 yards) was close to unstoppable; because, most importantly, the Steelers defense stunk. They weren’t out-schemed, they were outplayed.

Part of that can be hung on LeBeau, the Steelers' defensive coordinator. Most it can be hung on the players.

The Steelers shut down the Buffalo offense yesterday, holding it to 117 fewer yards than its average, because the defensive unit played well, not because LeBeau "out-schemed" Buffalo offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett.

As the Steelers defense has faltered this season, and this after two seasons of being unable to force turnovers, naturally there is talk of LeBeau, who is 76, being at fault. It was the same when the Steelers offense wasn’t good enough to suit some and all blame was placed on Bruce Arians.

The failure of the Steelers to force turnovers for the third straight year is perplexing, yet it’s hard to come up with a scenario in which it reflects directly on the defensive coordinator. There are no such things as force-fumble defenses or interception defenses. Those plays happen in the course of a game and they are made by players, not defensive alignments.

If the Steelers defense has been awful prior to this year, linking LeBeau to the turnover issue might make some sense. But it has otherwise been strong to extremely strong. From 2010-12, the Steelers held these rankings in points allowed: 1, 1, 6. In yards allowed 1, 1, 2. Somebody clearly was doing something right with the defense.

Those numbers have dipped considerably this season. The Steelers are 20th in points per game and 10th in yards per game. If the debacle vs. New England is removed -- 55 points and 610 yards -- the Steelers would be third in yards and eighth in points.

There’s another point that needs to be considered by the fire-LeBeau crowd. As was shown here last week, replacing one coach with another in no way guarantees improvement. In fact, teams often get worse with a new coach. The same applies with defensive coordinators. Does anyone seriously think the Steelers will find a defensive coordinator superior to LeBeau? Remember, they can’t lure a defensive coordinator from another NFL team. They have to hire an assistant or a coach from the college ranks.

If LeBeau does decide to retire or if he is forced out, as was Arians, the almost-certain successor is linebackers coach Keith Butler, who has been with the Steelers since 2003 and turned down other jobs to wait for his chance with the Steelers.

The Steelers defense might be better next season, might be worse. The players mostly will determine that, not the defensive coordinator.


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