For Steelers defense, it's all a matter of trust
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.
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