For Steelers defense, it's all a matter of trust
By Ralph N. Paulk
Published: Friday, Dec. 6, 2013, 11:48 p.m.
For years, the Steelers defense chalked up impressive numbers, in part, because it was a unit that relied mostly on chemistry and trust.
If nothing else, that chemistry slowly has eroded the past two seasons. The Steelers have suffered the inevitable consequences of losing reliable veterans — linebackers Larry Foote, James Harrison and James Farrior, and nose tackle Casey Hampton.
“I don't think people have addressed the importance of losing Larry Foote,” free safety Ryan Clark said. “He was our signal caller and a three-down linebacker. It changes the dynamics of your defense.”
On the one hand, Clark said changes in personnel have forced him to do more than in past years. On the other, strong safety Troy Polamalu said nothing has changed — except he often has played out of position at middle linebacker.
“Lately, we have toned it down and picked our spots,” Clark said. “We were trying to make all the tackles. If a run broke we felt we had to make a tackle. The quarterback went back to pass, I felt as if I had to be there to break it up.
“When you play safety, there are lots of things you can't do,” Clark added. “With Troy playing linebacker, it changed things for us. All we've done in training camp and preseason is play strong and free safety, so everything we did for seven years was out the window.”
Still, the defense played well enough the past month to keep alive their faint playoff chances. Again, it'll be challenged Sunday when the Steelers face the Dolphins (6-6) in what essentially is a wild-card elimination game at Heinz Field.
“What's happening is this defense is being underappreciated,” Clark said. “There are a lot of defenses that wish they were as good as we are this year.
“We're disappointed because we have higher standards. It hasn't been an awful year. It's been a year of transition.”
Clark and Polamalu agree they have had to adjust as the defense begins to transition. It's out with the old and in with the new — linebackers Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones, cornerback Cortez Allen, safety Shamarko Thomas and defensive end Cam Heyward.
“We have a good feel for one another, but when you have new faces, our power has been our personnel,” Polamalu said. “You have to depend on guys doing their job. When you don't trust people to be where they're supposed to be, as a safety you have to compensate for that.”
They, too, have been challenged to trust each other largely because Thomas and Jones have been thrust into the fray while veterans LaMarr Woodley and Brett Keisel have spent time rehabilitating injuries. It has created troubling uncertainty on a defense that thrives on positivity.
“We had new guys who fit differently. ... We all are trying to figure out where we fit and where we're needed,” Clark said. “When you're helping others, you leave a lot of people hanging. That was the mistake I made this season.”
Clark and Polamalu have been tasked with making plays and covering for the inexperienced players who are trying to earn their trust.
“It's affected us chemistry-wise,” Clark said. “Early on, it showed itself because I was trying to do a lot, maybe too much from certain positions because I was trying to help everybody out, whether it was in the run or pass.”
Clark said the Steelers can't continue to make the kind of mistakes that enabled Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson to rack up 179 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. Or getting shredded by Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon, who amassed a franchise record 237 yards.
Now the secondary faces a former teammate in Miami receiver Mike Wallace, who returns to Pittsburgh knowing he can play a significant role in blocking the Steelers' already narrow path to the playoffs.
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com 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.
- Analysis: Steelers could fill needs with free agents while not spending big bucks
- Steelers to release LaMarr Woodley; Taylor restructures contract
- Kovacevic: Big Ben’s contract clock ticking
- With so many needs, Steelers can ill afford to miss in draft
- Steelers defense doesn’t make the grade in 2013 review
- Steelers create cap space by re-signing Polamalu, Miller
- Keisel might be at end of Steelers career
- Steelers’ Worilds signs transition tag
- Steelers restructure Brown’s contract to become salary cap compliant