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Steelers' defense searching for answers for lack of takeaways

| Monday, Sept. 23, 2013, 7:03 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Bears' Matt Forte jumps for a first-quarter touchdown against the Steelers on Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013, at Heinz Field.

In the aftermath of another frustrating defeat, the Steelers again were in search of answers to the lingering questions about their inability to deliver game-changing plays.

The Bears' defense struck early when safety Major Wright returned a Ben Roethlisberger interception 38 yards for a touchdown. The Bears finished things off midway through the fourth quarter when defensive end Julius Peppers scooped up a Roethlisberger fumble for a 42-yard touchdown that sealed a 40-23 victory.

The Steelers, with their playoff chances reduced to slim or none, limped to 0-3 as an angry, perplexed crowd filed out of Heinz Field on Sunday night. Only three teams in NFL history have recovered from an 0-3 start to reach the postseason.

Even though Roethlisberger committed four of the team's five turnovers Sunday night, the defense assumed its share of culpability, in part because it couldn't counter Chicago's barrage of takeaways.

“At the end of the day, we have a good defense,” receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. “They have done a solid job of giving us the ball. All that other stuff like turnovers is a bonus.”

But “all that other stuff” matters.

It's been a sobering reality for a Steelers defense that has been ranked No. 1 in total defense but remains at the bottom of the charts in turnover differential since 2011.

Everyone from LaMarr Woodley to Troy Polamalu to Ike Taylor was peppered with questions that have been asked since the 2010 season when the Steelers had a plus-17 turnover margin (35 takeaways to 18 giveaways).

Why can't the defense give the offense a short field? Why can't they come up with interceptions and fumbles?

In other words: Why can't they be more like the Bears. Chicago has a league-best 11 takeaways.

Typically, Dick LeBeau's defense knows how to minimize the damage when backed into a corner, but it hasn't registered a turnover this season to help the struggling offense.

“I wish I had an answer for that,” defensive end Brett Keisel said. “It would have been fixed a long time ago. We watched the games (Sunday), and turnovers were coming all over the place.

“It's one of those things that have a huge impact in the game. You have to believe things will get turned around. We've got to hold onto the ball, and we have to give our offense more opportunities.”

More importantly, Woodley challenged the defense to take advantage of its chances to come up with loose balls and errant throws. Opportunities slipped through their hands when cornerback William Gay jarred the ball loose from receiver Alshon Jeffery and when quarterback Jay Cutler retrieved his fumble.

“We have to put some points on the board and put the offense in better scoring position,” Woodley said. “We did a good job of taking Cutler out of his comfort zone, but we gave up a big pass at the end.

“Right now, we're taking the heat anyway. As a (defensive) unit, we have high expectations no matter what the outcome. If someone turns the ball over, we have to defend every blade of grass.”

Aside from a lack of takeaways, the defense has failed to get stops on critical downs. Brandon Marshall beat Taylor for a 41-yard reception on third-and-12 to set up Cutler's game-clinching 17-yard scoring pass to Earl Bennett.

“We needed to make that play and keep (Cutler) in the pocket,” Keisel said. “It was a frustrating play, but you have to give Jay credit, and Marshall made the play at the end, and we didn't.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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