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Kovacevic: Steelers have much to take away

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By Dejan Kovacevic
Sunday, Aug. 19, 2012, 11:59 p.m.
 

There might not have been a more stirring cheer inside Heinz Field all Sunday night than the one for an out-of-town baseball score, of all things. Came around 8:30 p.m. in the first quarter of Steelers-Colts.

“Pirates 6, Cardinals 3!” boomed new PA man Larry Richert to a roar that I'm guessing he'd never heard for a weather forecast.

Yeah, so thick was the reverberation of the Pirates' 19-inning victory in St. Louis it was felt not only a time zone away but also through our city's typically impenetrable football consciousness.

Imagine that.

Coincidence or not, with the Jerry Meals Curse having been summarily slain, the few seconds after Richert's announcement saw Ike Taylor grab a football in his hands. And hold on. And run it back for six.

Imagine that .

If weighing Pittsburgh's simultaneous sporting events on a scale of importance, I'd say the crowd got it right. Besides, this was preseason, and not even the 26-24 last-minute outcome in the Steelers' favor mattered a bit.

But if weighing surprises, I'll put a Pedro Alvarez home run and Andrew McCutchen busting out of a slump way below the Steelers' first-team defense creating two turnovers off Indianapolis prodigy Andrew Luck on the interceptions by Taylor and later Cortez Allen.

I'll also take another ball that just zipped through Allen's hands, plus hard pressure from who-ever-doubted-this-guy Steve McLendon at nose tackle, plus Lawrence Timmons twisting to the inside behind him, plus Brett Keisel and LaMarr Woodley looking familiarly nasty from the outside, plus rookie linebacker Sean Spence aggressively going for the pickoff once when he knew Ryan Mundy had his back and …

Hey, if you didn't know better, you'd think this defense was a bunch of ballhawks, right?

It looked terrific.

And in this regard, really, it's got nowhere to go but up.

“It's a big goal of ours this year,” Keisel said. “We have to get more turnovers and get our offense back on the field. If we can do that, I think we'll win a lot of games.”

It was easy to lose last season within the Steelers' defense ranking No. 1 in the NFL — fewest points, fewest yards — but this was a group that wound up with a league-low 15 takeaways: 11 interceptions and four fumble recoveries. That's lousy for any team, but it's staggering in the context of this same group having had 35 takeaways in 2010.

They didn't turn passive in Dick LeBeau's blitzing schemes, contrary to some misperceptions. They weren't more banged up, either. They were just older. And now they're obviously older, averaging 30.1 years of age compared to 25.2 for the offense.

To boot, the defense essentially has three new starters: McLendon, Keenan Lewis at corner and veteran Larry Foote taking James Farrior's spot at inside linebacker. That's not exactly an infusion of youth, particularly if Casey Hampton reclaims nose tackle.

So it won't be strategy, and it won't be personnel that addresses this shortcoming.

It'll have to be making plays.

“It's very important,” Taylor said once his day was done. “We try to create as many turnovers as possible. This defense has been around for a while, and we have a good group of young guys. We'll be fine.”

Oddly, the Colts presented a decent fit for the challenge, even though they were awful enough last season to have drafted Luck No. 1 overall. You knew, if nothing else, that they'd come out throwing and that Luck would throw it better than most. It wouldn't be Peyton Manning — that'll come soon enough — but getting to him, frustrating him, would make for at least a preseason-sized check mark.

Luck had another decent showing, 16 of 25 for 175 yards, and he led two TD drives to go with the two interceptions. The kid comes as advertised. Sees the whole field with his 6-foot-4 height. Arm like a rifle. Puts the ball in an even better spot than the receiver probably wants it.

But in four drives against the Steelers' first-team defense, he was 10 of 17 for 136 yards, one TD, both picks, and he was wrapped up for a Woodley sack after pressure from McLendon.

To an extent, it looked a lot like what you're used to seeing the Steelers do to a rookie quarterback, even with the flaws.

Prettiest of all, Keisel and Taylor combined on the early pick-six. On third-and-9, Keisel blew around Indianapolis left tackle Anthony Castonzo to hurry Luck. The pass to the left sideline was still sharp — the kid's good, right? — but Taylor aggressively jumped the route in front of Reggie Wayne.

It was all green for 49 yards.

“Coach LeBeau always tells us to stay close to the receiver,” Taylor said. “And when the ball comes your way, you have to catch it.”

That last part of the equation is all that's kept Taylor from recognition among the NFL's better corners. (Well, that and a certain catch by Demaryius Thomas, but that, like Manning, is the future.) Taylor's been working in Latrobe on ball-catching drills.

This looked good.

Between the timing of that touchdown and the ovation for the Pirates, I was half expecting a new winger for Sidney Crosby to rush out of the tunnel.

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at dkovacevic@tribweb.com.

 

 
 


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