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Kovacevic: Big money, but few big plays

| Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011

Those weren't forced smiles in the Steelers' locker room late Sunday night in Indianapolis. To a man, the players sounded sincere. They really, honestly, truly took no issue with beating the bottom-feeding Colts by a field goal.

And that's fine. They were just following the primary talking point Mike Tomlin had pounded minutes after that 23-20 victory, and any coach who denigrates victories tends to be speechless after actual losses. Tomlin had every right to say, "We don't care how it looks," in that setting.

But let's leave it there.

It's time for the Steelers to face their shortcomings head-on, from the rancid running game to the backward blocking game to allowing some clipboard-holder named Curtis Painter to march the Colts 80 yards for a late tying touchdown.

Start with the defense, if only because it's the most realistic to repair quickly.

From there, start by fixing whatever ails LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons, two young men who were rising-star linebackers in the NFL, oh, just a few months ago.

People still grumble about the Steelers' defense being too old, and time will tell if that's more than just a narrative. It might end up being true. But, hey, that was James Harrison, 33 years old with a surgically repaired back, sacking Painter for the game-changing fumble for one of his team-high seven tackles. And that was 30-year-old Troy Polamalu flying about the field all night, including scooping up that fumble for a touchdown.

Woodley and Timmons?

Last time anyone noticed those two was during training camp, when they were signing eight-figure contracts. Woodley, 26, got six years and $61.5 million, with $18.1 million being paid out this season alone. Timmons, 25, got six years and $50 million. We were all singing about the Steelers securing another generation of dominant defense, and we had every reason to.

Well, the very early returns on that $111.5 million dual investment have amounted to spare change.

Woodley is an easy study. He's either in the quarterback's face or he isn't and, so far, he's been dialing long-distance to make contact. He has 1.5 sacks and 11 tackles, which actually is on par with his 10 sacks and per-game average of 3-4 tackles last season. The huge difference now is that he's not even getting close, having three official quarterback pressures after 31 last season.

On Sunday, after Woodley was barely seen in the Indianapolis backfield, I asked if he has played his best football yet.

"No, but I played pretty well in this game," Woodley replied. "Even though I didn't get any sacks, I still played a good game. I know people are always going to look at the sacks, but we did a good job overall containing them."

That's not good enough.

Woodley is a Pro Bowl performer, one of the NFL's elite pass rushers. He's right that he doesn't have to get sacks to have a good game, but he most certainly needs to at least have a presence. Especially when, as has been the case, he's rarely being double-teamed.

Timmons has 23 tackles for the team lead, but it's about 1.5 per game fewer than last season. He has one pass defensed — a vital part of his repertoire in dropping into coverage — after having nine last season. And, in the backfield, he has two tackles for losses, no sacks and no quarterback hits.

It would be easy to excuse Timmons not being near the quarterback. For one, the Steelers haven't been blitzing as much as in the past. For another, Timmons is an inside linebacker in a scheme that brings pressure from the edges.

But it was Timmons who spoke boldly of wanting to reach double-digits in sacks after having three last season, and the coaches backed that challenge. Timmons was a disruptive mega-force last season with two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. The Steelers had every right to expect he could find yet another gear.

"It's coming along, slowly but surely," Timmons said when I asked a question similar to the one posed to Woodley. "We're all getting more accustomed to everything, and we're getting better. There was some penetration in this game, and we made some big stops on the run. I think we're doing pretty well."

This isn't about complacency resulting from the contracts. Woodley and Timmons are quality character people, hardly the counting-their-money types.

It's about performance that hasn't been good enough.

If they want to see what's good enough, watch film of those old guys.

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