Kovacevic: Steelers' defense gets chewed up

| Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012, 11:59 p.m.

OAKLAND, Calif. -- "First two buses are leaving in five minutes!" came the cry of the Steelers' traveling secretary. That momentarily — and somewhat mercifully — shattered the silence of the visitors' locker room Sunday night at O.co Coliseum, where the only other sounds were the showers whirring and the shuffling of very large men getting dressed very quickly.

In what must have been an NFL record, the place cleared out in — at least by my stopwatch — 24 minutes. All that remained were towels, a few attendants and the tattered remains of a defense utterly devastated.

Raiders 34, Steelers 31.

For real.

Whatever you do, fellas, don't look back.

Not at all the tackles missed, all the blocks botched, all the fumbles, all the penalties, all that below-the-line kick coverage … none of it.

Mike Tomlin called it a “poor performance” and fairly spat when he spoke, “We have to chew on this one for a while” in referring to the bye week.

Seemed to be the theme. Brett Keisel, who inexplicably waltzed into the neutral zone for a penalty that essentially handed Oakland a first-half touchdown, stood tall in saying, “Blame this one on me,” shortly before adding, “We've got to chew on this for two weeks.”

I don't know. Guess I just can't see the benefit of the acid reflux that's sure to follow, especially in dissecting the dismal showing of a defense that had begun asserting itself a week ago against the Jets.

And this was all the more awful for happening against an Oakland offense that has one threat in running back Darren McFadden, whatever's left of Carson Palmer and had managed 27 total points against the Chargers and Dolphins.

Would you believe the Steelers blowing a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter?

Or the Raiders' final five possessions turning up touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, field goal and another Sebastian Janikowski boot to win it?

Or two first downs on the first five possessions, then 19 first downs on the final five?

What happened?

“They just got in a rhythm,” safety Ryan Clark said. “They made plays. We didn't. We've got some things to look at.”

OK, since they insist, let's look back and name names …

Clark picked off Palmer's first pass, but the secondary was mostly leaky. That was especially true of Ryan Mundy, beaten with a head fake on McFadden's 64-yard TD, then on a corner route in the end zone for the Raiders' next strike.

He's subbing for Troy Polamalu, but the standard is the standard, right?

Keisel owned up, but that doesn't lessen the criticism deserved by the defensive line that generated next to nothing. In fact, the line for the year has one sack — by Cam Heyward — and zero tackles for losses.

Not one!

What about Ziggy Hood, the first-round pick who still isn't making a first-round imprint?

“Yeah, I expect myself to make plays,” Hood said. “Missed a tackle on McFadden on that big run. I know I can do better. Our whole line does.”

But the one that sticks out, fair or not, is that Lawrence Timmons again failed to show. He had all of three tackles. I isolated on No. 94 one long drive, and I'd swear he touched an enemy jersey once in anger and spent the rest of the time dropping back to cover … no one.

With Polamalu and James Harrison out, someone has to make plays.

I asked Timmons if he felt he should be that player.

“I'm definitely one of those guys. I want to make plays for the defense,” he said. “But you're right: We do need to have guys step up. We just didn't make enough plays.”

Let's not stop with the athletes.

Is it ever OK to question the defensive coordinator's plan?

Few have achieved more in football than Dick LeBeau, as a player, as a coach, as a man. He's a treasure in every way.

But if you saw adjustments out there to what Palmer and the Oakland offense were generating in the second half, feel free to share. If you saw logic to rushing only four guys on a late third-and-9, if you saw any purpose to what Timmons was assigned to do all day, if you saw any creative ways concocted to get a pass rush off the right side — Chris Carter and Jason Worilds weren't getting it done — feel free to share.

I asked several players if the second half was a case of the Raiders changing things up.

“That wasn't it,” Keisel said. “They made the plays, and we didn't make plays.”

That was universally echoed, but sorry, it can't work as a universal explanation if one team is making the same plays again and again, and the opponent is staying with the same scheme again and again.

Been saying it for three weeks, and I'll repeat: The Steelers must be the aggressors on defense. Playing it safe is achieving nothing more than exposing their weaknesses.

And those weaknesses look a lot more pointed now than they did before this miserable outcome.

Chew on that.

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

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