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Tim Benz: Steelers defense troubled by 2nd-half-opening drives

| Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017, 6:10 p.m.
The Packers' Jamaal Williams scores past Steelers cornerback William Gay during the first quarter Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Packers' Jamaal Williams scores past Steelers cornerback William Gay during the first quarter Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017, at Heinz Field.

After the bye in Week 9, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin issued a challenge to his team to get more “ splash plays .”

It worked.

Unfortunately, it seems to have worked for his opponents, too.

Not only are the Steelers pulling off more big plays on both sides of the ball the last few games, they seem to be allowing them at an alarming rate as well.

As the Tribune-Review outlined , the Steelers have allowed eight passing plays of at least 40 yards during the last four games.

The Tribune-Review's Chris Adamski pointed out that only six other NFL teams have allowed more than that for the whole season.

“We've been having hiccups on defense in terms of giving up explosion plays,” said Tomlin at his weekly Tuesday press conference. “It's putting us in position where we could lose games.

“It needs to disappear. Yesterday.”

Everyone's mom has their favorite remedy for curing the hiccups. Mine always told me to pinch my nose, swallow a big gulp of air, then breathe it out slowly for 30 seconds.

It works. Try it sometime.

The Steelers' remedy for their defensive “hiccups” on deep balls might be winning the coin toss every week and deferring their choice until the third quarter.

Because the first drive of every second half for the opposing offense has been more hiccup-inducing than washing down two Alka-seltzers with a giant can of Jolt cola.

In the three games since the bye, the Steelers allowed touchdown passes of 61, 75, and 55 yards on the opening drive of the third quarter to Colts, Titans and Packers, respectively.

Since Tomlin himself said it's OK to start looking ahead to playing New England , I'll be the five-millionth Pittsburgher to say it: “Stuff like that is gonna get 'em killed against the Patriots.”

This is especially troubling since the Patriots are renowned for being masters of scoring in the two-minute drive at the end of the second quarter, then scoring again if they get the ball to open the second half.

So why does this keep happening?

“Man, I don't know. I don't know. We run the same calls,” cornerback Coty Sensabaugh said, shaking his head at his locker after the win Sunday night. “We've got to play better on that first drive after the half. Because that first drive is huge, and I felt like we gave (Green Bay) some life.”

The Steelers' awful defensive play coming out of halftime can't be blamed on lethargy because they were up big. The Green Bay game was tied. They actually were trailing the Colts at halftime 10-3. And the Titans were only down 16-7 to open the third quarter.

“The answer is just detailing, technical detail,” defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. ‘We need to start getting better before the playoffs. But I feel like we are going to start eliminating things.”

A more specific answer might be Joe Haden's absence. He proved to be an outstanding preseason acquisition.

At least he was, until a broken fibula sidelined him in the first half of that Colts game. Perhaps with him out, opposing quarterbacks are feeling emboldened at the idea of attacking the Steelers deep.

But Tomlin insists Haden's injury can't be used as an excuse.

“The 11 guys on the field represent us. They've got a standard to uphold,” Tomlin said. “The standard is the standard.”

Yes, Mike, we established that as your first commandment many years ago. But your team acquired Haden because the standard was too low at that corner position opposite Artie Burns in the first place. Subtracting him can't be an excuse. But it can be a reason why the secondary isn't as good.

The Steelers are allowing 193 yards through the air on average this season. The Black and Gold defense has yielded 227 per game over the three games since Haden went down.

What isn't as easily understood is why Burns suddenly looks more vulnerable. One would figure that with Haden gone, Burns would be targeted even less and Sensabaugh, Haden's backup, would become the target.

Regardless of which Steelers defensive back is attacked, I've got a little advice for the folks at Paul Brown Stadium. During Monday night's game, don't get stuck in the halftime bathroom line if the Bengals are getting the opening kick. Andy Dalton might be looking to dial up a deep shot to A.J. Green on the opening snap of the third quarter.

And if recent history holds, it's going for a touchdown.

Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.

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