Coach Killers is your weekly look around the league at those performances, decisions and "Wait, what did he just do?!" moments that put the guy in charge squarely on the ol' hot seat. Questions, comments, casserole ideas? Hit us up on Twitter at @ryanwilson_07.
Two weeks ago, the Steelers had just won their second consecutive game, this time against division rival Baltimore, and the talk was about how this 2-4 team was right back in the AFC mix. Now, two demoralizing losses later, including a record-setting blowout against the Patriots Sunday, the Steelers are who we thought they were.
Other than quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the top of the roster is full of overpaid, underperforming veterans. Not helping: Lack of talent at several key positions and lack of depth just about everywhere else.
The offense showed some life against the Patriots but as often happens with truly bad teams, the defense took the week off. New England scored 55 points -- the most allowed by any Steelers team ever -- and the saddest part is that Pittsburgh never quit.
We're not condoning giving up, just that it sure as hell would explain a lot. Instead, this defense appears to be giving full effort, which is clearly no match for mental mistakes and lack of ability.
“I had concerns about quality effort and things of that nature after a performance like that,” coach Mike Tomlin said during his Tuesday press conference. “After combing through the tape, there were no blatant breaches of that. I really think, kind of more than anything, that we were beaten. And it happens from time to time, as humbling as it may seem. I think we can grow from this and move forward.”
So now what?
Well, there isn't much to be done over the final two months. This is a below-average defense, one that won't magically become the 2008 Steelers with extra film sessions and a motivational pep talk from James Harrison. This is about the future, which unofficially starts Dec. 30, the day after Pittsburgh's season comes to its inglorious conclusion.
The next logical step: Cleaning house. That means vets like defensive end Brett Keisel, safety Ryan Clark, defensive end Ziggy Hood and outside linebacker Jason Worilds almost certainly won't be re-signed. And the organization could even decide to part ways with Troy Polamalu, whose base salary is $8.25 million in 2014, and perhaps even cornerback Ike Taylor (base salary in '14: $7 million).
Things have gone so bad so fast that not even the legendary Dick LeBeau is immune to criticism and calls for his job. The 76-year-old Hall of Famer is one of the best defensive minds in NFL history, but would the Steelers give him the Bruce Arians treatment this offseason? Should they?
If the plan is to overhaul the Steelers' defensive philosophy, one that's built around the 3-4, then moving on from LeBeau would make sense (whether you agree with the decision or not). But it's no secret that linebackers coach Keith Butler is the coordinator-in-waiting once LeBeau calls it a career. Sending LeBeau on his way only to replace him with someone who would run the same scheme could be problematic, particularly if the 2014 Steelers' defense struggles.
(Just ask Todd Haley what it's like trying to replace Arians, who wasn't particularly loved during his tenure in Pittsburgh but is now revered as some sort of patron saint of offense. In related news: Haley's gone come Dec. 30.)
But whatever fate awaits LeBeau -- and he could chose to retire after the season -- this is bigger than him.
The real problem is that this Steelers' defense has routinely been outplayed. Sunday, obviously, was the nadir. That it came against this Patriots offense, which has looked awful at times, is the latest evidence that a complete offseason overhaul is in order.
One question fans were asking after Sunday's loss: Why didn't LeBeau use the same strategy that saw the Steelers dominate Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker back in their 2011 matchup?
That game plan consisted of the cornerbacks pressing the Patriots' recievers at the line of scrimmage and disrupting the timing of the passing game. But the secondary's success was contigent on two things: A pass rush and stopping the run, which made the Pats' offense one-dimensional and easier to attack.
The 2013 Steelers can do neither. Below, the visual proof, courtesy of some lowlights from the first half of the season.
What started off as a five-year hitch turned into a 70-yard touchdown pitch and catch. This is an example of a play that has nothing to do with LeBeau, or the effort of his players, but the lethal combination of mental and physical mistakes. Even when the opponent is the just-as-hapless Vikings.
Polamalu is blocked by Joe Webb, a former quarterback-turned-receiver, and rookie inside linebacker Vince Williams makes a poor read and gets caught inside. The result: One Purple Jesus cut at the line of scrimmage and 60 yards later he's celebrating six.
Nothing like the game's first play from scrimmage setting the tone. Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor runs the read-option with running back Darren McFadden. Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, thinking McFadden has the ball, crashes down the line of scrimmage. And safety Ryan Clark does the same from his position in the middle of the field. But Pryor keeps it, running untouched for a 93-yard touchdown.
Just how bad was Clark burned? He sprinted 13 (!) yards towards the line of scrimmage before he realized McFadden didn't have the ball. By that time he had no chance to recover.
“I should have been a little patient in the middle of the field so if things broke down I could kind of overlap,” Clark said afterwards.
“Even if you're excited about stopping McFadden, you have to understand the beast that's playing quarterback. Once a guy like him gets a in front of the whole defense, he's a legit 4.4 (speed in 40-yard dash). It just looks slow because he's 6-6 but he was moving.”
You don't say.
Brady manipulates Polamalu by looking right, moving him out of the area he wants to throw the ball to a wide-open Amendola. There really wasn't anything more to it than that. Note in the .GIF just how out of position Polamalu is as Amendola sashays into the end zone.
Cornerback Ike Taylor and Clark bite on a Brady play-action fake just long enough for wide receiver Aaron Dobson to beat both of them down the field. Again, nothing complicated here. Just mental lapses that result in another huge play.
Clark dusted off the "This is why we're not very good" talking points following the Pats' loss too.
“We just didn't play well defensively, more so on the inside, so you can put that on me,” he said. “I'm the hub of communications out there. I have to make sure everyone is assignment sound. You have to do that against Tom Brady. Whenever there was a weakness in the defense, Tom Brady found it. ... We didn't show up, from the first play to the last play. It's embarrassing, not just for us, for the organization.”
If the Steelers continue along this course, they'll have a top-5 pick in the April draft. Left tackle seems like the biggest need, but if Jadeveon Clowney is on the board Pittsburgh would have to give him serious consideration, right? Or maybe the strategy will be to try to trade down, stockpile picks and hasten the rebuilding effort.
But draft scenarios are still five months off. For the next eight games, Pittsburgh's defense -- a unit that didn't get its first turnover until Week 6 -- has to figure out how to stop someone.