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Late letdowns on defense hurting Steelers

| Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, 11:20 p.m.
Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer beats the rush by the Steelers' Ryan Clark in a game earlier this season. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review
Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer beats the rush by the Steelers' Ryan Clark in a game earlier this season. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review
Steelers saftey Ryan Clark returns an interception against the Raiders in a loss earlier this season. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review
Steelers saftey Ryan Clark returns an interception against the Raiders in a loss earlier this season. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

They can blame the absence of all-world safety Troy Polamalu for two games. They can blame not getting the reliable push from their defensive line that would have helped prevent wide receivers from constantly gaining downfield separation.

To safety Ryan Clark, it's time to stop finding reasons why the Steelers secondary's statistics look great but their execution can look awful, especially in the second half.

To illustrate how numbers can lie, the Steelers (1-2) are No. 5 in total defense and No. 3 in passing yardage, yet they made an aging Peyton Manning look like an in-his-prime Manning, and Carson Palmer look like the Palmer of 2004. If Mark Sanchez hadn't looked like Mark Sanchez, the Steelers' numbers wouldn't look like they do.

Big plays allowed, drives extended, upsets not prevented, games lost in the second half. No matter what the statistics say, that's not the Steelers' way.

“It's like I said, on the first play (Sunday) there's no more excuses,” Clark said Wednesday. “We can't run in here and say, ‘We don't have Troy, we don't have James (Harrison).' We have everybody we're supposed to have now, so we've got to go out and make plays. You get a lift when those guys are out there, running to the ball and doing what they've done for years.”

What's contradictory to their high rankings is that opponents are converting nearly half of their third-down attempts (16 of 33), thus keeping an aging defense on the field too long. That's showing up in the second half, when the Steelers are giving up nearly twice as many yards passing (385) as they are in the first half (215).

“It hasn't been terrible; honestly, it hasn't been,” Clark said of the secondary's play. “I think the spot we come up on the wrong end of the grade is third down. If you look at anything we need to improve on, it's getting off the field in those clutch downs and getting the offense the ball back. People haven't really beaten us over the top.”

Palmer, for example, was 6 of 10 for 37 yards, one touchdown and one interception in the first half; in the second half, he was 18 of 24 for 172 yards and two touchdowns as the Raiders rallied from a 10-point deficit to win, 34-31.

“Any defense, if you're not going 100 percent on third down, you're not satisfied,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “We have to pick it up. I think we're going to come out with a better effort this week.”

They might need one against ultra-mobile quarterback Michael Vick, whose ability to extend drives with his running and throwing helped the Eagles (3-1) rally in the fourth quarter of all three of their wins. Philadelphia visits Heinz Field on Sunday.

“He's taken a pounding this year, guys are getting to him, making him fumble and give the ball up,” Clark said, referring to Vick's five fumbles. “Even though he takes a lot of hits and he's a tough guy, you can get the ball out from him. You've got to continue to pound on him so it adds up as the game goes along.”

Last week, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau suggested the defense's problems resulted in part from players abandoning their responsibilities and trying to make a play on their own. Trust each other and do your job.

That message was reinforced as the Steelers returned to practice Wednesday, when the defense was healthy and operating at full strength for the first time since training camp started.

“If we get no push or if we get push, we have to be solid on our coverage,” cornerback Cortez Allen said. “We've got to plaster their receivers, and that's going to be a big thing against Michael Vick, who does a good job as far as extending plays. Regardless of what happens up front, we have to be solid in our coverage.”

And not just on the stats sheet.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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