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Steelers defense's rapid decline looks similar to that of Steel Curtain's

| Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013, 1:45 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers' William Gay, Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu react on bench after losing to the Raiders, 21-18, on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013, in Oakland, Calif.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor looks away after Ravens receiver Torrey Smith caught a touchdown pass during the first quarter Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

Joe Greene, Jack Lambert and Mel Blount went through it, and it was painful. Now, Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, LaMarr Woodley and Ike Taylor are enduring it, too.

For years, a defense channels greatness and is being compared to the best of all time. Then, seemingly the very next moment, it experiences a great falloff.

The Steelers owned one of the best defenses in NFL history while winning four Super Bowls between 1974 and 1979. Twice they were the league's best statistically, once they were No. 2 and they were No. 1 overall during that span.

But even with many of the same players on the field, they tumbled to No. 12 overall and No. 22 in pass defense in 1980 and, despite all of their Hall of Famers, to No. 22 overall and No. 26 against the pass in 1981.

Similarly, the Steelers were the NFL's dominant defense from 2005-2012, appearing in three Super Bowls. Their 2008 defense was one of the best of all time even while playing an intimidating schedule, and they've led the league four times since 2007.

But the downturn this season is precipitous — and, no doubt to Steelers management, a bit scary.

They were No. 1 overall last season, but the Steelers have tumbled to No. 12 in total defense, trailing all three division rivals. Even worse, they've plunged from No. 2 against the run last season to No. 24, far behind even the Raiders and Texans.

As illustrated by the Dolphins' succession of long runs Sunday, these Steelers are vulnerable once a runner clears the line of scrimmage. They've already allowed 1,562 yards rushing, nearly 300 yards more than they gave up the entire 2008 season.

What's the reason? Aging personnel? The schemes? Poor tackling?

“I think splash plays have a lot to do with it — and, don't get me wrong, I'm not seeking comfort in identifying splash plays as the reason for the change,” coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday, referring to the 11 plays of 50 yards or more the defense has allowed.

The Steelers are pace to give up 1,922 yards rushing, their third most since the 1970 NFL merger.

“Obviously, if (the big plays) were centrally located in one area schematically or from a personnel standpoint, those things are easily solved,” Tomlin said. “But when you look at it, it's really been kind of like popcorn in terms of (being) a myriad of schematic things, a myriad of personnel things.”

Despite the breakdowns, Tomlin doesn't plan any major personnel changes over the final three weeks. But he hinted at using his three top outside linebackers — Jason Worilds, Woodley and rookie Jarvis Jones — at the same time, most likely in sub packages. One would effectively become an inside linebacker.

The idea for doing so might have come from former Steelers star James Harrison, who was almost exclusively a 3-4 rush linebacker with Pittsburgh but is now being used in a number of ways in the Bengals' 4-3 defense.

“(It's) probably made them difficult to block and identify with some of their pressure packages,” Tomlin said.

But not as difficult to identify as what's gone wrong with what traditionally is the Steelers' most reliable component, Dick LeBeau's defense.

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

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