QB Palmer's prowess concerns Steelers
Next up for a Steelers defense that has been good but not dominant is quarterback Carson Palmer and the Cincinnati Bengals, who may have pulled off the biggest upset in the second week of the NFL season.
The Steelers didn't face Palmer, who missed most of last season with an elbow injury, in 2008. Unfortunately for them, he fits the profile of the quarterbacks who have had success against the Steelers through the first two weeks of the season.
Like Kerry Collins and Jay Cutler, Palmer has a big-time arm, the size to stand tall and absorb hits in the pocket and a track record of success in the NFL.
Whether he can help the Bengals end a five-game losing streak against the Steelers may depend on how much Palmer is able to emulate Cutler, who led the Bears a 17-14 win over the defending Super Bowl champion Sunday in Chicago.
Looking nothing like the devil-may-care gunslinger that threw a career-high four interceptions in his Bears' debut, Cutler instead showed the patience of a kindergarten teacher.
Indeed, 19 of his 27 completions went for fewer than 10 yards. He also showed future opponents a way to beat them by taking what the Steelers were giving and throwing underneath.
"Check downs and (quick) outs, that's what teams are going to do to us," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said.
Cutler did it to near perfection, resisting any urge to force the issue against the No.1 defense in the NFL last season. On the three scoring drives he engineered, Cutler completed all five of his pass attempts on third down, though only one covered more than 10 yards.
"We wanted to take advantage of some zones, dink and dunk them and if we have a chance for a deep one, take it," Cutler said after improving to 2-0 in his career against the Steelers. "They keep two safeties up high a lot and keep everything in front of them."
The Steelers will likely employ such a defensive strategy until safety Troy Polamalu returns from a sprained left knee.
While Tyrone Carter has been a dependable backup, he does not have Polamalu's speed. Hence, the more conventional deployment of the Steelers' safeties that Cutler saw.
"Troy's one of a kind," Carter said of the player who lines up all over the field. "He's one of the best safeties in the league."
The Steelers' depth at safety could be an issue in Cincinnati depending on how Carter's left thigh responds to rest and treatment this week.
He got hurt while delivering a shot to Bears tight end Greg Olsen in the second quarter. His leg got tight to the point where Carter admitted that he should have considered taking himself out of the game before Johnny Knox caught a 7-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
If able bodies at safety are a concern, so should be the fact the Steelers have not been as opportunistic on defense as they were a year ago.
They have forced just two turnovers and notched only a pair of sacks. After two games last season, the Steelers had seven sacks.
Part of the reason the Steelers have not taken the quarterback down more: Collins and Cutler both got rid of the ball quickly.
But, said outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, the Steelers have to do a better job of finishing when they do get to the quarterback.
Woodley spent considerable time in the Bears' backfield. Yet, he will go into Cincinnati looking for his first sack of the season.
"I got in there a few times, but didn't wrap (Cutler) up as good and instead of getting a sack, he threw the ball away," said Woodley, adding that Steelers pass rushers have to take better angles to the quarterback. "It was an incomplete pass, but we could have set them back a little bit farther. James Farrior got in there a few times and missed a few opportunities.
"Going by watching film, there were just a few things here or there that we didn't hit. The only thing you can do is correct the mistakes, move forward and get ready for Sunday."
And if the Bengals try to use a strategy similar to the one that worked for the Bears?
Bring it on, said Keisel.
"We feel like if they're checking the ball down and doing outs, those types of plays aren't going to beat us," Keisel said. "If we can avoid a big play, we'll be fine."