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Steelers' once-vaunted defense loses fear factor against NFL opponents

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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Lions receiver Calvin Johnson breaks away from Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor to score during the second quarter Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013, at Heinz Field.

Now and then

The Steelers' 2008 defense was one of the best in NFL history. How this Steelers defense compares :

2013 2008

Passing yards 2,156 1,692

TD passes 12 9

INTs 6 10

Rush yards 1,252 689

Passer rating 84.2 63.4

Yards per pass play 7.3 6.0

Yards per pass attempt 6.97 5.37

By Alan Robinson
Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, 10:18 p.m.

Maybe they just don't fear Dick LeBeau any longer. Or Troy Polamalu. Or LaMarr Woodley. Or the black helmet with a logo on only one side.

They certainly don't fear to tread the middle any longer, not like they did when man-mountain Casey Hampton patrolled it. They're not hesitant to go up top, not after Tom Brady produced 31 points in a quarter and a half by doing so.

Steelers opponents are running the ball and passing it deeper with more success than ever against a LeBeau defense.

What has happened to the respect the Steelers' defense traditionally commands?

“It's dwindling a little bit,” Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said Wednesday.

Foote added, “Your respect goes off numbers. Your respect teams off the film and numbers.”

And, right now, those numbers aren't like they were in the past.

Imagine this: The Steelers defense, statistically the NFL's best for three of the past four seasons, is the worst in the AFC North. The Browns (No. 5), Bengals (No. 6) and Ravens (No. 13) rank ahead of the No. 14 Steelers, who have looked vulnerable even while winning four of their past six.

A few years ago, how many teams would have dared to risk a fake field goal against the Steelers, as the Lions did Sunday? Or go for it on fourth-and-3?

The Steelers are allowing about twice as many rushing yards per game — 125.2 — as they did only three years ago (62.8).

This goes against an NFL trend in which teams are running the ball a combined average of only 53.8 times per game, down from an average of 73.8 in 1976.

“I think it's an accumulation of a lot of things,” Polamalu said as the Steelers (4-6) began practicing for their key AFC North game Sunday at Cleveland. “We just haven't played well as a team in general. When you don't play well as a team, it gives their offense an opportunity to make plays.”

And the Steelers aren't making plays defensively, certainly not like they did during their Super Bowl seasons in 2008 and 2010.

“Some weeks we play extremely well, some weeks we don't,” safety Ryan Clark said. “When you give guys the opportunity to make plays and you don't cover people, people are going to catch the ball.”

They're not being overwhelmed by the pass, despite the fact NFL teams are throwing 10.5 percent more than they did five years ago. The Steelers have allowed 2,156 yards passing and 12 touchdown passes, down from 2,391 yards in 2010.

But they've given up 18 passes of 25 yards or longer, including a 79-yarder Sunday to Calvin Johnson of Detroit and an 81-yarder two weeks before that to rookie Aaron Dobson of New England; they allowed only 19 all of last season. And the Patriots' 55 points and 610 yards were the most against any Steelers team.

“We have given up more plays this year than we have in the past,” Polamalu said. “That's just a fact.”

That 2010 defense was so dominant against the run, their opponents' 333 rushing attempts were the fewest since the NFL adopted a 16-game schedule. Now the Steelers are a lowly 26th against the run.

“It's a copycat league, and every game, a team is going to come in and try to run it,” Foote said. “If you stop it, they'll go to passing. If you ain't stopping it, the game plan will be run.”

It's all about what an opponent respects. Or doesn't.

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

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