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Savran: Blame the players, not the coaches

Saturday, November 16, 2002

Fans are the first to rail against players for making too much money. Then, when they don't make the plays they are well paid to make, fans blame the coaches. Puzzling.

While it's true that coaches must put players in the best possible circumstances to succeed, and thus should not be absolved from blame when things don't go as planned, they can't make the plays for them.

Clearly, the Steelers' defense is not. Which is also puzzling.

This is the same group, minus one, that dominated a year ago. And it's reasonable to suggest the one replacement part, James Farrior, is doing at least as well (and probably better) than Earl Holmes.

What's changed?

Have other teams finally figured out the 3-4 defense and the Steelers' unique philosophy of running it?

That seems unlikely, considering it's been their staple for more than a decade. The bad guys are just getting it now? Did they get it from 1998-2000 when the Steelers missed the playoffs, have a sudden onset of amnesia last season, then rediscovered the secrets of beating the Steelers this fall?

Or is it the performance of the players?

A year ago, Jason Gildon and Aaron Smith used the opposition's backfield as a fall vacation home -- not taking up permanent residence, but visiting frequently enough to become familiar with the lay of the land.

This year, it's as if they've had to show a passport to a border patrol to cross the line of scrimmage.

They're not alone.

How many times has this once-upon-a-time Big Nasty D penetrated and blown up a running play in the backfield for minus yardage? How many times, even in non-playoff seasons, can you remember a back going 59 yards for a touchdown on a third-and-short, as Warrick Dunn did Sunday?

Complaining about passive defense has been all the rage this week, but I don't care if you're rushing 10 and dropping one or vice versa, allowing Atlanta to convert a ridiculous three third-and-20s is as embarrassing as it is telling. And it was done against three different defenses called by coordinator Tim Lewis.

So was this a product of strategy or execution?

Factor in that this pitiful performance wasn't an aberration, but rather a recurrence. Coming into the Falcons game, the Steelers were last in the AFC and third-worst in the NFL in allowing third down conversions, at the astonishingly bad rate of 47 percent. Last year, they allowed teams to convert one of every three times, one of the best percentages in the league.

Have opponents discovered a chink in the Steelers' armor so cavernous that Steelers' coaches haven't -- or can't -- adjust? Or is it the players who haven't responded?

People think blitzing is a panacea for all that ails you. But when you send people after the quarterback, you are generally placing your defensive backs in man-to-man coverage. Based on what you've seen, is that what you want?

Besides, you want to be in a zone on third-and-20, your seven defenders against their four receivers. And if they catch one underneath, so what? You come up, make the tackle, and the punt return team comes onto the field. But phantom coverage compounded by missing tackles to make it a 25- or 30-yard gain is not a matter of design, but of execution.

I agree with most who leveled criticism of the fourth quarter offensive play-calling Sunday, although less hysterically. This team's offensive personality has changed. I wouldn't label them a "passing" team, but they certainly are more proficient at it, and thus more comfortable with it.

That being the case, you can't abandon that personality trait entirely. Certainly you alter your passing -- you don't fling the ball wildly around the field. You've got to play the game circumstance intelligently.

But if throwing the football has evolved into an integral part of your identity, you can't discard it entirely by locking it in an equipment trunk until the following Sunday. Still, had the Steelers moved a few white jerseys off the line of scrimmage and converted a couple of third-and-short yardage situations, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

The pass defense probably won't be an issue tomorrow. Tennessee throws with about the same efficiency as Nebraska. But at some point, it will be an issue. Especially in the playoffs, and especially if they have to deal with a Denver or a rematch with Oakland.

The good news is the coaches have plenty of time to rectify the situation. The bad news is they'll be trying to do it with the same personnel. The coaches coach the players, the players play the games, and the players win the games.

Or not.

Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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