Steelers seeking remedy for mediocre defense
Cam Heyward often wears a “Steel Curtain” T-shirt, a sign that he recognizes the tradition of defensive excellence that is not only expected but is mandated whenever a player joins the Steelers.
Let down in a single game, and you are letting down Mel Blount and Jack Ham, Joe Greene and Rod Woodson, Jack Lambert and your teammates, Troy Polamalu and James Harrison.
A season ago, the Steelers allowed the fewest yards and points in the NFL. It wasn't an anomaly. Since the 1970 NFL merger, they also are No. 1 in the same two categories, which measure not just a team's ability to control an opponent but to keep it off the scoreboard.
“This city's built on defense,” linebacker Larry Foote said. “This locker room is built on it.”
Except that being without Harrison (knee) for the season to date and Polamalu (calf) for two games has significantly weakened that foundation. The Steelers aren't getting off the field on third downs, aren't pressuring the quarterback consistently, aren't getting off the field at all in the second half.
“We aren't whipping the guy across from us,” safety Ryan Clark said.
When they resume practicing Monday following their weekend off, the Steelers will try to sort out whether going from the top of the heap to the middle or below in numerous statistical categories represents a fixable letdown or a non-repairable breakdown.
They don't know when they'll get back Harrison, who can't seem to get on the practice field regularly, much less play a game. They expect Polamalu to be all right — he practiced last week — but he's 31, so it might be unfair to anticipate him being the player he was only a couple of years ago.
No, whether this defense will begin to resemble those of the recent past will be up to Heyward and Ziggy Hood, Foote and Lawrence Timmons, Keenan Lewis and Ike Taylor.
“In this business, you are never as good as you think you are and you are never quite as bad as maybe they say you are,” defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. “We are getting good effort and good plays, but not enough.”
That was evident when Peyton Manning led three scoring drives during the second half in Denver, and when Carson Palmer led five scoring drives in the second half in Oakland. And a defense that rarely allows big plays already has given up a 71-yard touchdown pass (Demaryius Thomas) and a 64-yard TD run (Darren McFadden).
They have only five sacks, only three turnovers forced. Opponents are converting at a 48 percent rate on third down (16 of 33), the fifth highest in the league.
“That's why we call third down the ‘money down,' ” Foote said. “You've got to get off the field.”
Foote and LeBeau both suggested the defensive lapses have occurred in part because players are trying to do too much, such as failing to control their gap when they see a teammate in distress.
“I found with this group of guys that generally that is a condition,” LeBeau said. “If a team is moving the ball a little bit, they want to do a little more to stop them. That is a good problem to have. But it is a problem nonetheless. We can't do that. We have to trust the defense, trust the teammate, focus and play.”
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.