ShareThis Page

Steelers' secondary is not making excuses despite losing ground

| Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, 10:24 p.m.
Patriots running back Stevan Ridley gets into the end zone ahead of Steelers safety Troy Polamula on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Patriots running back Stevan Ridley gets into the end zone ahead of Steelers safety Troy Polamula on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

Rodney Harrison, a two-time Super Bowl safety with the New England Patriots, knows more than a little about playing defensive back.

Watching Tom Brady find Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson for wide-open catch after wide-open catch during a 432-yard Patriots passing day, Harrison had one thought about the Steelers' 30-something secondary.

“Old and slow,” said Harrison, now an analyst with NBC.

Old, slow and done?

The Steelers safeties aren't what they used to be during the Super Bowl seasons of 2005, '08 and '10, perhaps because they're not as young as they used to be. Ryan Clark is 34, and Troy Polamalu is 32, and they looked every bit their age while being beaten repeatedly downfield and in coverage by the Patriots receivers.

Polamalu might have played the worst game of a mostly exceptional career. He was called for three penalties. He was caught over-pursuing on multiple runs. He was victimized when Brady's eyes took him one way, only to have the quarterback throw another. He was beaten badly on an Amendola 34-yard touchdown catch.

“We're a defense that gives up only (an occasional) long run and long pass play, and now we give up so many,” Polamalu said, almost sighing.

Was it the beginning of the end for one of the best defensive players of his era, one of the first signs Polamalu no longer can cover the best receivers on an elite team?

To Clark, that's laughable.

“He's the best player on our defense. We all have bad weeks. We all have bad plays,” Clark said. “Troy's not the reason we lost that game. We all made mistakes. We all gave up big plays. It's a team sport.”

Coach Mike Tomlin said Polamalu's complicated role — he is in run support one play, deep coverage the next — won't change despite Brady's precise dissecting of the secondary.

Clark said it shouldn't.

“Troy is allowed to do what he does because he's special. You have to allow special players to be special or you waste them,” Clark said. “Making Troy do whatever that dot on the page does in the (playbook), that would be ridiculous.”

Analytics support Clark's contention that Polamalu remains an upper-tier player. Polamalu ranks 18th by Pro Football Focus among 85 safeties and is 11th in coverage, and the Steelers (210 yards per game) are fourth overall in pass defense.

Instead, it is Clark who is experiencing an exceptional drop-off in grading.

Ranked No. 9 overall and No. 9 in coverage last season, he grades out only 76th overall and 68th in coverage.

Clark said injuries — notably to linebacker Larry Foote — are forcing everyone on defense to play differently.

“Troy basically plays linebacker in our sub-package. He's not allowed to roam free and wreak havoc and make the plays he's used to making in that position,” Clark said. “Troy's better when he's a deep player, but we have no one else right now. People are saying he's not making the plays or doing this or doing that, but he's also not able to be in the position where he's used to making those plays.”

Polamalu isn't making excuses.

“I know where the breakdowns were, and they had nothing to do with schematics or coaching,” he said. “The truth is you can point at any mistakes, but all I know they are correctable, and we'll have an opportunity to correct them.”

“We had a bad week. We had a really bad week,” Clark said. “And we have to get better from there.”

It would be difficult to play much worse.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.