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Harris: Steelers still work in progress

| Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012, 12:23 a.m.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has had a charmed life with the Steelers.

During his first eight years in the NFL, Roethlisberger played in three Super Bowls and won two. He reached the playoffs six times and went to the Pro Bowl twice.

Roethlisberger plays on a team whose defense led the league four times and finished outside the top five in total defense once.

This year, however, the onus should be on Roethlisberger and the Steelers' offense instead of their defense.

The pressure has always been on No. 7. He's the quarterback, and he makes the most money. This year, that pressure is magnified.

Under Roethlisberger, the Steelers have cracked the top 10 in total offense twice, finishing as high as No. 7 in total offense while never finishing higher than No. 9 in passing offense.

In the three years that the Steelers advanced to the Super Bowl with Roethlisberger at quarterback, they ranked 14th, 22nd and 15th in total offense. On defense, the Steelers ranked first, second and fourth in total defense during those Super Bowl years.

In the two years that Roethlisberger didn't reach the playoffs, the Steelers ranked No. 9 (2006) and No. 5 (2009) in total defense, marking the unit's two lowest rankings during the quarterback's tenure.

Coincidence? Or cause for concern?

While it's early to jump to conclusions following the Steelers' 31-19 loss at Denver, it isn't too soon to honestly evaluate a defense that's in transition.

Defensive end Aaron Smith and inside linebacker James Farrior retired. Outside linebacker James Harrison didn't play against Denver because of a knee injury and practiced sparingly the entire offseason. He was replaced in the lineup by Chris Carter, a fifth-round draft pick in 2011 who was making his first NFL start and also played on special teams. Veteran Larry Foote, who replaced Farrior in the lineup, lost his starting job to Lawrence Timmons following the 2008 season. Nose tackle Casey Hampton is recovering from knee surgery and shares playing time with Steve McClendon.

Safety Ryan Clark missed his second straight game against Denver (including last year's playoff game) because he has the sickle cell trait. Fourth-year Keenan Lewis replaced William Gay at left cornerback, while second-year corner Cortez Allen has taken over covering inside receivers.

It's a work in progress.

The Steelers' defensive effort against Denver wasn't terrible, but it wasn't what was expected, considering the team spent the offseason using their playoff loss against the Broncos as motivation.

People have taken the Steelers' defense for granted for so long that at the first sign of slippage, the initial response is to point fingers.

When you're ranked No. 1 in total defense, as the Steelers were in 2011,'08, '07 and '04, there's only one direction to go the following year — down.

A possible drop-off by the defense this year means the offense has to pick up the slack.

We should have seen this coming. The lack of a consistent pass rush has carried over from last season, putting more strain on a rebuilding secondary whose cornerbacks are playing several yards off the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped.

Early returns in the preseason against the starters weren't good. Indianapolis and Buffalo spread out the Steelers' defense and attacked uncovered areas in the running and passing game.

It was more of the same against Denver and quarterback Peyton Manning in the opener, only worse. The Steelers knew what was coming but couldn't stop the Broncos.

As Bill Cowher used to say, it is what it is.

If this is indeed a rebuilding year for the Steelers' defense, it's imperative that Roethlisberger and new offensive coordinator Todd Haley take charge. Nineteen points at Denver won't get it done.

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at jharris@tribweb.com.

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