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.
Lebeau’s second stint in Cincinnati (1997-2002) was even more disastrous, and after being promoted to head coach, he was just 12-33 (.267) before being fired. He did spend one quality year as an assistant head coach in Buffalo (2003), and had a good initial run on a Pittsburgh defense loaded with talent (1992-1996).
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.
- 12/6/2009: Oakland’s Bruce Gradkowski became the first QB in NFL history to throw three go-ahead touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, upsetting Pittsburgh 27-24. The third completed an 88-yard drive with 0:09 left.
- 2011 AFC Wild Card: In the first game under new overtime rules, Tim Tebow threw an 80-yard game-winning touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas on the first play. It is the longest game-winning touchdown pass in NFL postseason history.
- The second largest blown fourth-quarter lead in a Super Bowl belongs to Dick LeBeau’s 2008 Steelers (13 points vs. Arizona). Kurt Warner passed for 224 yards in the fourth quarter alone.
- Since 2009, the Steelers have allowed four game-winning touchdowns in the last 0:32 of the fourth quarter. From 1990-2008, the Steelers had allowed only two game-winning touchdowns in the last 60 seconds of the fourth quarter (both vs. Cincinnati).
- Since October 2011, the Steelers have allowed four game-winning touchdown drives of 80 or more yards. That matches the total they allowed from 1990-2010 (21 seasons).
- 9/23/2012: Oakland had lost 48 consecutive games when trailing by at least 10 points to start the fourth quarter. They overcame a 31-21 deficit for a 34-31 win in Week 3.
- In Roethlisberger’s 21 fourth-quarter comeback wins, the Steelers have led after three quarters just as often as they trailed (10 times each plus one tie).
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.
Trends go back to LeBeau’s days in Cincinnati
As Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator from 1984-1991, the Bengals allowed a league-worst 27 game-winning drives (tied with Cleveland and Minnesota). Included are a few famous ones against Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers.
On September 20, 1987, the Bengals led 26-20, but just turned the ball over on downs at their own 25. With only two seconds left on the clock, Montana had one shot, and somehow Jerry Rice was left one-on-one for the game-winning touchdown against LeBeau’s defense.
That is the shortest one-minute drill since 1981, and perhaps in NFL history. When else has a team taken over with two seconds left, needing a touchdown, and won the game?
The next year the teams would meet in Super Bowl XXIII, and Montana led the first ever classic game-winning drive late in the big game. He completed 8-of-9 passes for 97 yards and the touchdown to John Taylor with 0:34 left. It was flawless, and LeBeau could only watch it happen to his defense.
LeBeau’s defense not elite versus the elites
Great quarterbacks have very few problems playing LeBeau’s defense. Here are the numbers Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks have had against him in Pittsburgh since 2004.
Only Favre struggled, and while the record is close to .500, some of the wins have only been possible because LeBeau has a quarterback of this caliber on his side.
Roethlisberger saved the 2008 Steelers from the all-time Super Bowl choke with his epic drive to beat Arizona on the Santonio Holmes’ touchdown. He did the same a year later to beat Rodgers and Green Bay on the final play of the game after LeBeau’s defense blew another double-digit lead in the fourth quarter.
All three of Roethlisberger’s wins over Eli Manning and Drew Brees saw him lead a game-winning drive (two were comebacks).
The numbers would be even worse for LeBeau if you included how the quarterbacks fared against him when he coached as an assistant in Pittsburgh (1992-1996), Cincinnati (1997-2002) and Buffalo (2003).
Including those games, these seven quarterbacks have the following lofty numbers combined: 21-11 (.656), 738 of 1,067 (69.2 percent) for 8,401 yards, 7.87 YPA, 59 TD, 17 INT, and a 104.3 passer rating.
Peyton Manning is 7-1 against LeBeau, and the only loss was in the 2005 AFC Divisional playoff game. Even in that game Manning trailed 21-3 in the fourth quarter and almost won the game in the final minute with another record comeback. Jerome Bettis helped with a fumble, but Roethlisberger made the tackle and the only thing preventing overtime was a missed field goal by Mike Vanderjagt.
As defensive coordinator in Cincinnati (1984-1991), it was more of the same when LeBeau went up against the game's best quarterbacks. Joe Montana (4-0), Dan Marino (3-0) and John Elway (3-0) combined for a 10-0 record with 17 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 95.7 passer rating.
This does not really jive with the New York Giants for example, who are like the opposite version of LeBeau’s Steelers.
Winners of two recent Super Bowls, we now know they have allowed the fewest game-winning drives (9) in the league since 2007, and they also have been outstanding in the postseason against amazing competition on the road.
In each of the 11 playoff games in the Tom Coughlin era, the Giants have never allowed more than 23 points. They have held three of the 10 highest scoring teams in NFL history to 20 or fewer points, including 14 points to the undefeated 2007 Patriots and 20 points to the No. 2 scoring team in history, the 2011 Green Bay Packers.
Whereas LeBeau’s defense made Aaron Rodgers look unstoppable in Super Bowl XLV, the Giants went into Lambeau last year and dominated the Green Bay offense. Do not even get me started on how much more success the Giants have had against Tom Brady.
Does New York ever have great defensive stats in the regular season? No, but they usually show up big late in games, in the playoffs, and against some of the best offenses ever. That formula is proven to win championships too.
Fair or not, LeBeau’s championship runs will not be remembered for shutting down elite offenses, but instead will be remembered for Carson Palmer’s torn ACL after one pass, Roethlisberger’s tackle of Nick Harper after Jerome Bettis’ fumble, the officiating against Seattle in Super Bowl XL, Troy Polamalu’s pick six of a rookie Joe Flacco, and Roethlisberger to Holmes on the last drive.
How do you want your defense to be remembered? Great stats or great moments?
Dick LeBeau’s legacy is secured because of how hard it is to rewrite a narrative, especially for someone with over 50 years of experience in football.
He seems like a great guy who obviously has found a fountain of youth somewhere, and his players love him like a father. There’s no denying anything about his character.
But the evidence piles up to show that he is not the flawless defensive guru he gets glorified as. While his defense may produce a lot of good numbers — at least in Pittsburgh it has — it consistently fails in late-game situations and against the best in the game.
Why is that? Perhaps it is because trailing teams and teams with great quarterbacks will throw the football, and LeBeau’s Pittsburgh defense was built to stop the run, which is less significant in today’s game.
Without a ton of talent at cornerback, and a stubbornness to continue playing with such large cushions — or to play no real pass defense at all against Tim Tebow in the playoffs — a quarterback can easily get into a rhythm and pick this defense apart as long as the protection is picking up the blitzes, which are no longer very innovative in 2012.
After writing this the Steelers will probably intercept Andy Dalton three times in the fourth quarter on Sunday, but that’s only going to be one game. These defensive lapses go back decades for LeBeau.
So the next time you see the Steelers helplessly sending blitzes to no avail as a team marches down the field in the final minute to beat them, just remember that this happens frequently to LeBeau’s defenses.
Legend or not, the defensive letdowns are just as much a part of his career as the successes.
Scott Kacsmar (@CaptainComeback) writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, Bleacher Report, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network.