Defensive lapses against Dolphins outweigh positives for Steelers
By Ralph N. Paulk
Published: Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, 8:48 p.m.
At times, the Steelers defense delivered the splash plays on Sunday it has been criticized for leaving on the field during the past three seasons.
However, the defense surrendered a series of big plays to a rather unimaginative Miami Dolphins offense in a 34-28 defeat at a snow-covered Heinz Field.
“Even though we had those kinds of (splash) plays, we also gave up plays,” said linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who made his first start after missing three games with a calf injury. “We gave up the big runs to the quarterback and one at the end that allowed them to put points on the board.”
The Dolphins parlayed a 48-yard run by quarterback Ryan Tannehill into a field goal to narrow their deficit to 7-3 in the first quarter. But the most damaging blow was a 55-yard run by running back Daniel Thomas that positioned Miami for its game-winning touchdown with 2:53 remaining in the game.
In contrast, the Dolphins defense made the plays that mattered. It stopped quarterback Ben Roethlisberger short of the first-down marker on a fourth-down scramble that enabled Miami to stretch its lead to six points with 68 seconds left.
“I can't put my hands on it,” cornerback Ike Taylor said. “It's just been like that all season.”
Amid a gloomy locker room, the Steelers searched for a silver lining with their playoff chances practically gone.
Safety Troy Polamalu returned an interception 19 yards for a touchdown, and linebacker Jason Worilds and defensive end Cam Heyward came up with plays that turned back the Dolphins or saved a touchdown.
Heyward, a former No. 1 draft pick, played the most complete game of his career. The numbers — a team-high 10 total tackles and a sack — aren't reflective of how he impacted the game.
Worilds, who remained at left outside linebacker despite Woodley's return, continues to excel. The numbers for Worilds — eight tackles and two sacks — summed up how he has become the Steelers' most dominant defensive player the past month.
Still, their numbers paled in comparison to the defensive breakdowns.
“It's extremely disappointing,” Worilds said. “It comes down to the fact that they made some things happen at critical times. I won't take anything away from them because they executed more than we did, especially on third down.”
Worilds and Heyward weren't sure what happened when Thomas slipped into the open field for his 55-yard run that set up the decisive score — a 12-yard pass from Tannehill to tight end Charles Clay.
Clay pulled in a short pass along the right sideline, then escaped the grasp of Polamalu and cornerback Cortez Allen.
“It's something we can't have as a unit,” Worilds said. “It's frustrating. It was combination of missed tackles and lack of execution. Usually when teams have success against us, we're not doing something right.”
“It was an emotional roller coaster,” Heyward said. “We don't care about our stats because we're just trying to get the W's. We don't care if it's pretty or ugly, but we have to find a way to win. We have to keep these big plays from killing us.”
Heyward realizes the last three games could shape the long-term future of the organization.
“We're playing for our jobs,” Heyward said. “If you care about this, we'll show up on Monday ready to work. It doesn't matter what our record is.”
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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