Kovacevic: Steelers' D goes for the KO
The Steelers had not the faintest idea what they were doing on defense.
Rewind to the Jets' first offensive series, while the sun was still shining Sunday and fans were still filing into Heinz Field. Mark Sanchez was behind center, barking audibles. In response, Ryan Clark sprinted up from his safety spot to move a few pieces himself. And in response to that, his fellow defenders began tripping all over each other. Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons somehow wound up all alone 20 yards off the line.
“We were kind of just off a little bit,” Clark savagely understated later.
How that play netted the Jets only an 11-yard catch by Santonio Holmes will remain a mystery.
But this won't: The Steelers' defense, even after allowing Sanchez, Holmes and crew to coast 90 yards for a touchdown, came back with a counterpunch we haven't seen for quite a while.
During that drive, Sanchez was 4 of 5 for 80 yards and the touchdown.
Looked pretty slick, too.
After it, he was 6 of 22 for 58 yards, no touchdowns, two sacks.
Looked almost sick.
And maybe he was.
See, if you listen to Clark and Mike Tomlin, the Steelers suddenly flipped the switch after that opening drive and solidified all facets to take this 27-10 victory.
“It wasn't changes,” as the head coach put it. “We just buckled down and play a little better.”
But from the press box, man, it sure looked like the change emanated from a single seismic hit by — wait for it — Lawrence Timmons.
Yeah, him. The impact player who so seldom makes an impact.
On the Jets' very next series, Sanchez rolled right on a third-down scramble, released an errant pass and … BOOM! The crown of Timmons' helmet met Sanchez head-on and crumpled him.
Timmons was flagged for a personal foul, and he'll probably hear from Roger Goodell's fine collectors this week.
The Steelers defended Timmons to a man, and Timmons claimed innocence, too, stressing that Sanchez lowered his head just as he arrived.
“By the time I came to hit him … it's a gray area in the league there,” Timmons said. “I'm just playing ball.”
I don't doubt the intention, but I also don't dispute the flag. He led with the crown. He'll open the wallet.
And it'll be a price well worth paying, for it changed the game in a way this defense seldom has since 2010.
Sanchez was adamant the “shot,” as he called it, didn't affect him — “Absolutely not,” he said — but you'd have to be nuts to buy that.
Clark sure wouldn't.
“It would affect me if a guy came in and lowered the boom on me like that,” Clark said. “I think when quarterbacks start getting hit, they're different people. That's why they play quarterback.”
Coincidence or not — and I don't think it was — the defense began clobbering the Jets as a whole.
Ryan Mundy leveled running back Shonn Greene with a shoulder hit that resulted in an unspecified “head injury,” according to the Jets. Greene returned, but he'd gain a futile 23 yards on 11 carries.
“We wanted to be aggressive,” Mundy said.
Dick LeBeau wasted LaMarr Woodley last week in Denver and on the first drive of this game, dropping him into pass coverage and lifting him on third downs. But in the third quarter, with Woodley and Chris Carter storming Sanchez from either end, Woodley recorded his first sack.
“We wanted to put pressure on the QB,” Woodley said. “That's how we were calling the plays.”
Nobody had his number called more than Clark. He seized upon his first action since the meaningless Cleveland finale last winter — the Steelers' past two games were in Denver, where his sickle cell trait keeps him from playing — by recording a team-high eight tackles, two for losses and most with painful consequences.
What changed for Clark after the early mishaps?
“No. 25 just stopped playing really bad. Period,” he said. “I was just excited, I had a lot of emotion, and I was a little anxious. Everywhere Mark Sanchez pump-faked, I went. I just stopped being a knucklehead.”
Clark deserves immense credit. He was the Steelers' best player on a day they desperately needed it, trying to avoid 0-2, trying to overcome the absence of James Harrison and Troy Polamalu.
If Clark wasn't going to lead the way physically and neither of those two gentlemen could go, I'd venture to guess no one — including Timmons — would follow.
I asked Clark if he felt the Steelers were the more physical team.
“I do. And that's how you win. That's what we preached all week. Even if you make a mistake, get to the ball and be physical.”
Cleans up a lot of messes.
Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.