The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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December 12, 2013

Big plays are plaguing Steelers secondary

PITTSBURGH — The plays keep popping up on video, one after another, no two of them quite alike, save for the result: Big chunks of yardage against a defense not used to giving them up so easily.

And Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor is getting more than a little annoyed about it.

“It’s just one of those years,” Taylor said. “We don’t like it. It’s new territory. I really can’t explain it. It’s just happening.”

Repeatedly.

The Steelers (5-8) are in danger of their first losing season in a decade and the defense that has finished atop the NFL five times in the past decade needs a late rally to avoid finishing outside the top 10 for the first time this millennium.

Most of the blame goes to the breakdowns that have allowed opponents to flip the field – and the game – with plays that typically end with the likes of Taylor and Troy Polamalu in futile pursuit of whoever has the ball.

Pittsburgh has allowed 11 plays of 50 yards or more this season, tops in the league and a decided departure from a unit that surrendered yards begrudgingly, if it surrendered any at all.

Everyone has a theory. Mike Tomlin thinks poor tackling is part of the problem. Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau thinks his players sometimes find themselves out of position and don’t always communicate with each other. Polamalu thinks it’s just a matter of execution.

Polamalu returned an interception for a touchdown in last week’s 34-28 loss to Miami. He allowed Daniel Thomas to get loose for a 55-yard run on Miami’s game-winning drive. The perennial Pro Bowl player also failed to tackle tight end Charles Clay on the 12-yard touchdown pass that gave the Dolphins the lead for good.

Rather than help Cortez Allen take Clay to the ground after Clay caught a short pass from Ryan Tannehill, Polamalu tried to rip the ball out. Instead, Clay ripped through both Steelers on his way to the end zone.

LeBeau describes those types of errors as “ones of commission,” the kind of aggressive mistake he can live with because it means his players are trying to produce the splash plays that can turn a game and perhaps a season around.

They haven’t come nearly often enough for Pittsburgh to recover from an 0-4 start, though LeBeau remains confident the Steelers “can still get it done.”

If they don’t, he said feel free to blame the coach. He doesn’t believe the number of players in the twilight of their careers is an issue even if the majority of the Pittsburgh secondary, including Polamalu, Taylor, Ryan Clark and Will Allen, are all in their 30s. Last time LeBeau checked, that shouldn’t prevent them from doing their jobs.”

“The aging process (stinks),” joked the 76-year-old LeBeau. “Nobody knows that better than I do. ... I don’t believe the problems we’re experiencing there are age-related.”

The game is changing, too. The Steelers are hardly the only team with issues making plays in the open field. The balance of power across the league has swung heavily to offenses, particularly ones that spread the field by using four or five wide receivers.

“Everybody that touches the ball, sometimes it makes you look like you’re not trying to tackle,” he said.

LeBeau knows that sounds like an excuse most people aren’t interested in hearing. To be honest, he doesn’t want to hear it either. While Pittsburgh might not be the dominant force it was five years ago, the Steelers have shown they can shut the door.

The team that allowed Miami to frolic in the snow is the same one that overwhelmed the Detroit Lions in a comeback 37-27 win last month. Of course, that half came after giving up 27 points in the second quarter.

“We’re capable,” LeBeau said. “Our problem really has been consistency, and we need to solve that.”

That’s tough to address in December, a time of year when padded practices and “thudding up” (hitting but not tackling) are limited due to health and safety concerns.

If the Steelers are to find a way back to .500 by the end of the season, they need to adjust on the fly and stick to the principles LeBeau has been preaching for years. Play smart. Play fast. Do what you have to do to get the guy with the ball on the ground.

“We’ve been on top for a long time, and things do happen,” Taylor said. “And it’s one of those years. But we’ve still got three games left, so we’ve still got to finish strong and just bounce back.”

Notes: Polamalu (shoulder), DE Brett Keisel (foot) and DT Steve McLendon (ankle) did not practice Thursday. WR Emmanuel Sanders (foot) was limited.

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