Steelers' secondary is not making excuses despite losing ground
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.