Steelers Defense by the Numbers: 46 and 1,279 Explain Dick LeBeau’s “Decline”

Football may have surpassed baseball as the US’ pastime long ago, but when it comes to statistics the gridiron can only hope to hold its own vs. the diamond. Yet holding its own it is as every year information technology puts more and more data in the hands of experts and amateurs alike.

During the Mike Tomlin era, Steelers defenses have finished 1st four times 2nd once in 2010 and 5th in 2009. In 2013 that ranking on total yards allowed dipped to 13th. In some corners of Steelers Nation easily explain this by leaping to the assumption that Dick LeBeau suddenly woke up and forgot everything he knew. Others cling to Warren Sapp’s tired “Old Slow and Done” dictum.

However, Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review has unearthed two stats that reveal just how faulty those two assumptions are.

What are those two numbers? 46 and 1,279. What do they represent? Snaps played by Steelers rookies in Dick LeBeau’s defense in 2012 vs. 2013.

  • The exponential increase explains a lot.

Robert Golden played all 46 snaps by defensive rookies in 2012. Jarvis Jones led the rookie class with 646 snaps followed by Vince Williams whose snap count clocked in at 406. Shamarko Thomas accounted for the bulk of the rest of those snaps, but Terence Garvin was also working his way into the lineup late in the season, and rookies Brain Arnfelt and Hebron Fangupo also saw spot duty late in the season.

Anyone seeking to understand the impact of 46 snaps played by one rookie vs. 1,279 played by five rookies in a Dick LeBeau defense need look no further than a ‘confession’ made by former defensive coordinator Tim Lewis.

Like John Fox, Tim Lewis broke into the NFL with the Steelers after coaching defense for Pitt, with Lewis’ first year being 1995. When Bill Cowher promoted Lewis to defensive coordinator in 2000 Lewis made a revealing comment that he didn’t really begin to understand LeBeau’s defense until the ’95 season’s final game Super Bowl XXX.

  • Keep in mind, that Lewis made that statement after four years of playing in the NFL and 8 years as a collegiate coach.

And if that was his reaction one can imagine how difficult it must be for rookie’s to pick up on LeBeau’s nuances.

Does 2014’s Peril Spell Promise for 2013? Maybe, Maybe Not

With 2013 fading into the rearview mirror there’s a temptation to look at those 1,279 rookie defensive snaps and count them as some sort of equity towards 2014. And the unit should benefit from the baptism by fire endured by those rookies.

  • But exposure to a system does not equal success with it.

Robert Golden led rookie defenders in 2012 and was seen as an up and comer entering training camp, yet played very little outside of special teams.

The other operative issue will be the 2014 rookie snap count itself. With Ike Taylor holding a high cap value, Brett Keisel approaching his “Life’s work” and Ziggy Hood about to enter free agency its not too difficult to imagine another rookie finding his way on to the field next season.

Ever since the Debacle in Baltimore the national media has clung to Warren Sapp’s words as a catch all security blanket to explain all that ails the Steelers defense.

But Robinson’s research proves with others such as Jim Wexell argued early on that the Steelers defense should best be described as “Young, green, and inexperienced” as opposed to “Old, slow, and done.”

Jarvis Jones, Shamarko Thomas and perhaps Vince Williams are all projected as starters in 2014. And should that come to pass they will be neither old nor inexperienced thanks to 2013.

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