Kovacevic: Steelers' D hovering like a hawk
“Ballhawks?” Cortez Allen came back with an eyebrow raised. “Are we talkin' ballhawks?”
And yeah, we were.
We were talkin' ballhawks over on the South Side, shortly before the Steelers took to a sun-splashed field for one of their final tune-ups before opening the 2013 for-real season Sunday against the Titans.
“Well, what a ballhawk does,” your new starting cornerback continued, “is something you can't teach. I mean, you can work at it. You can focus on it. You can get better. But some guys, they've just got the ability to be around the ball.”
That ability, obviously, can be a significant separator in the NFL. An average defense with great takeaway talent suddenly looks like … well, a great defense.
As for the No. 1 defense?
“We've got room to grow,” Allen said. “No question about that.”
We'll see soon enough.
The 2012 Steelers' No. 1 ranking in passing yards allowed and No. 2 ranking in rushing yards allowed combined for the No. 1 overall spot. Total defense, as it's called.
The problem with that terminology, of course, is that there's nothing total about a defense that's 23rd in takeaways (20), 28th in interceptions (10) and 19th in fumble recoveries.
There's also nothing very Pittsburgh about it. Fact is, before the Steelers took a hard turn down Route 8-8, they were more aggressive, more intimidating, more in tune with what had been their identity for, oh, four decades or so.
Part of that was Dick LeBeau's scheme, which was as conservative as anyone had seen from him. But mostly it was personnel: Neither James Harrison nor LaMarr Woodley could get to the quarterback anymore, essentially ripping out the foundation of the 3-4 defense. Neither of those linebackers nor Larry Foote could cover the pass, so valuable Lawrence Timmons was dropped back. The line almost never found the backfield. Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis could defend the pass but not actually hold onto it. Troy Polamalu was hobbled. I could go on.
It wasn't until Allen saw starting duty late in the season — a career first — that turnovers came with any concentration: He had two interceptions and three forced fumbles in only three starts.
One-fifth of the team's season total!
“I feel like I've always had the ability to be around the football,” Allen said. “And we've got other guys like that, too.”
They actually do, and not coincidentally, all three will be new: Allen will take over for Lewis. Steve “Big Mac” McLendon will take over for Casey “Big Snack” Hampton, with penetrating as his primary skill. First-rounder Jarvis Jones will split right outside linebacker with Jason Worilds, both more effective than the 2012 Harrison on the rush.
Let me throw this in, too: Expect to see LeBeau get Timmons — who has looked near-superhuman all summer — more involved in the blitz. That card was shown more than once in the preseason, and, to be blunt, it's long overdue.
“Fine by me,” Timmons said. “We know we've got to get the football.”
X's and O's aside, no one stands out in this facet quite like Jones.
“Jarvis, now that's a ballhawk,” Allen said.
Jones made it through the full practice Thursday and appears set to make his debut Sunday. He tried to downplay his part — “Man, this is the No. 1 defense in the NFL, and I'm just riding on their wings” — but the truth is he wowed coaches by poking and pouncing on balls left and right in the preseason. He could be a violent variable right away.
Does he see ballhawk skills as being innate?
“Maybe,” Jones replied. “All I know is I've always taken pride on being around the football.”
Same with Big Mac, who had four combined sacks and tackles for losses in limited duty last season.
“I'll do what my coaches tell me,” McLendon said. “But absolutely, getting to the ball is part of that.”
This would be a fine week to unleash all that aggression, of course, and not just because it's the opener: The Titans' 28 turnovers were ninth-most in the NFL last season. Jake Locker threw 11 picks against 10 touchdowns and had the lowest completion percentage when being pressured. Chris Johnson is one of the league's most explosive backs, but he's also notoriously easy to take down if touched in the backfield and has six fumbles the past two seasons. Even the offensive line, which Tennessee spent big to upgrade under new coach/old guard Mike Munchak, will still be working to gel.
No need to let the Titans get cozy.
“We know who they are, but what's more important is we know who we are,” McLendon said. “We'll be coming.”
Ballhawks or bust.
Steelers 24, Titans 13.