Is Cause of Steelers Secondary Slump Simple Bad Luck?

Yesterday’s Watch Tower edition reviewed Ray Fittipaldo’s suggestion in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that the Steelers current inability to find competent cornerback is rooted a failure by the front office and coaching staff to get on the same page.

  • It says here that Ray Fittipaldo may be on to something.

Especially if you consider that the current personnel “crisis” isn’t limited to cornerback. Arguably, entire Steelers secondary suffers from a personnel slump. The Steelers secondary has failed to produce turnovers in force since 2010, and the only quality defensive backs rafted and developed by the Steelers since Super Bowl XLIII, Keenan Lewis and Ryan Mundy, are now employed by the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears. Consider the contrast with the guys still in Pittsburgh:

Both the subjective and objective evidence at hand is not favorable. But it’s possible that the Steelers secondary slump has an entirely different root cause. It’s one that once bedeviled the Steelers at a different spot on the depth chart for over a decade. Fans in the “fire us crowd” won’t like to read this, but that doesn’t make the explanation any less plausible:

  • Bad luck

Yes, you read that right. Bad luck could be the culprit behind the Steelers struggle to man the secondary with serviceable if not quality players.

Pittsburgh Suffers Post Steel Curtain Defensive Line Drought

The Steelers gave the NFL its first dynasty defined by its defensive line. Chuck Noll drafted Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood in 1969, Dwight White in 1971, and added Ernie Holmes as an undrafted rookie free agent in 1972. Before the Steelers even won their second Super Bowl, Time magazine was putting the original Steel Curtain on its cover.

By the time Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood suited up for their last Pro Bowl in 1980, the defensive lineman had made a collective 18 Pro Bowl appearances for Pittsburgh Steelers in ten years.

  • You don’t assemble quartet of that caliber without a strong eye for talent.

But talent evaluation skills aren’t the only factor in play, as suggested by this next factoid:

  • Joel Steed would be the next defensive lineman to get Pro Bowl honors in 1998.

That’s right, the franchise that once established the gold standard for defensive line excellence in the 70’s went 18 years without sending a single defensive lineman to the Pro Bowl. It wasn’t as if the Steelers didn’t try. In the 1980’s alone, the Steelers drafted defensive lineman Keith Gary, Gabe Rivera and Aaron Jones in the first round.

The Steelers also targeted the defensive line in the second round, picking John Goodman in 1980, Gerald Williams in 1986, and Kenny Davidson in 1990. Of the threesome, Gerald Williams was the only quality player, but the Steelers were forced to use him at nose tackle instead of defensive end because they could never find anyone else to play in the middle.

The Steelers only used one third rounder on a defensive lineman during that era, and he was Craig Veasey, taken in 1990 and Veasey was a total bust, making only 5 starts over 6 years in stops in Pittsburgh, Miami, and Houston.

In fact, the Steelers most accomplished defensive lineman during the 1980’s was Keith Willis, who made the team as an undrafted rookie free agent.

  • Things improved in 1992 with Bill Cowher’s arrival.

The Steelers added Steed in 1992, Kevin Henry in 1993, and Brensten Buckner in 1994, Oliver Gibson in 1995, and Orpheus Roye in 1996. That was an improvement on the previous decade, but Tom Donahoe also paid a hefty price to move up to pick Jeremy Staat, a person better known for his tattoos and later service in the US military than for his exploits on the field.

Successful NFL Draft = Art + Science + Luck

What happened? The Steel Curtain was scouted by a team comprised of Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, Bill Nunn Jr. and Tom Modrak and Chuck Noll make his picks based on their reports. Clearly these 6 men didn’t suffer collective case of defensive line evaluation stupidity the moment the clock struck midnight on December 31st, 1979.

Dan Rooney realized that things weren’t working and removed his brother as head of the Steelers scouting department in October 1986. Chuck Noll drafted Hall of Famers Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson in his next two drafts.

Noll’s next four drafts brought Hardy Nickerson, Greg Lloyd, John Jackson, Merril Hoge, Carnell Lake, Jerry Olsavsky, Neil O’Donnell and Barry Foster. In a word, communication between scouting and coaching improved enough for Noll to draft the players who would fuel the Steelers early 1990’s resurgence under the Cowher Power banner.

  • But notice, there’s not a defensive lineman named above.

Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe did find decent to good defensive lineman in their first 7 drafts, but it wasn’t until their 8th draft that they bagged a great defensive lineman one, in the form of Aaron Smith.

  • The moral of the story is that draft NFL personnel evaluation is a blend of science, art and luck.

The Steelers secondary slump appears to be serious. Could it sink the Steelers 2015 season? It is way, way too early to say so. Might its roots be found in a failure by Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, and Carnell Lake to get on the same page as Kevin Colbert and his scouts? Perhaps.

But the Steelers personnel strike outs in the secondary might also be a simple, if however maddening, case of bad luck.

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