Steelers' secondary now a primary concern
By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013, 10:15 p.m.
LONDON — There couldn't have been any single facet more debilitating, more demoralizing to the Steelers' 34-27 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday at Wembley Stadium than that the defense continued to concede big plays.
And the worst part?
“They just came on breakdowns,” safety Troy Polamalu said.
No, the part worse than that.
“We just didn't tackle,” nickel back Willie Gay said.
That's the one.
Minnesota's first “splash play,” as Mike Tomlin will derisively call them in this context, came on a Greg Jennings quick catch that strikingly blossomed into a 70-yard touchdown spring once he faked out cornerback Cortez Allen, blew by another corner, Ike Taylor, and took off.
Matt Cassel, who made the 5-yard throw to start it, explained: “I think the coaches did a great job scouting the film and looking at where there might be some holes and where we can take advantage of some easy throws.”
Not much else to analyze there, other than that Polamalu was up at the line to pursue all-universe running back Adrian Peterson.
Maybe that was one of the “holes” Cassel cited.
The next splash came from Peterson on a simple handoff up the middle that strikingly blossomed into a 60-yard touchdown sprint once he leaped over Taylor's failed tackle, stiff-armed linebacker Lawrence Timmons, then easily burst into open turf and pulled away from safety Ryan Clark.
“I was able to press it and cut it back and take it to the house,” Peterson said.
Polamalu was up at the line on that one, too.
Problem there, potentially?
“Our No. 1 goal is to stop the run, get as many men in the box as we can,” Polamalu said. “If we don't stop it, I'll be up there all year. The more we can force third-and-longs, the more opportunities we'll get to make plays and force turnovers.”
They have zero of the latter, of course, through the four losses.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and secondary coach Carnell Lake schemed all summer for Polamalu to get back to being the dynamic, unpredictable force up front after two seasons in which injuries largely limited him to a far more passive so-called “center field” role. The last line of defense.
There have been two clear problems with it:
1. Polamalu isn't getting much done in the backfield.
2. Opponents are getting a lot done where he'd normally play.
Tomlin, asked specifically about that strategy and whether it might change, reiterated his feeling that poor tackling was to blame.
“It was about the tackling,” he replied.
Polamalu hardly has been alone in his ineffectiveness.
Clark has looked nothing like 2012, when he was for long stretches the Steelers' best defensive player at any position. His next big play will be his first. His next big hit will be his first.
It could be that NFL rules aimed at eliminating high hits — Clark's signature for years — has taken a toll. Or it could be that he's 33 and playing a fast man's position.
“We're missing tackles as individuals, and we're not there as support when someone else misses one,” Clark said. “We've got to try to put that fire out, getting more people to the ball.”
Allen has been a disappointment in his first full year as starting corner, including a lack of durability in camp and into the season.
Taylor has been the steadiest of the group in coverage, but his long-standing propensity for failing to hold onto interceptions showed up again Sunday with two first-half drops.
Tomlin made clear — though it hardly was a fresh point — that the big plays have to stop.
“It's affecting the outcome of football games, so obviously there's a level of concern,” he said. “But it's fundamental. It's not anything mystical. We miss a tackle. You have to tackle better.”
Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic
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