The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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October 10, 2013

Steelers’ turnaround hinges on ‘swagger’

PITTSBURGH — Forget about the 0-4 start. Pay no attention to the lack of sacks. Disregard the inability to generate even a single turnover through the season’s first 16 quarters.

Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor doesn’t believe in numbers. His confidence, or “swagger” as he likes to call it, comes from something much more tangible: the half-dozen Vince Lombardi trophies sitting in a case upstairs at the team’s practice facility.

“When you walk up there and see those six trophies and I’m a part of being two of them, (swagger) just comes natural,” Taylor said.

Maybe, but even the always-confident Taylor knows it’s going to take more than a little bluster to have the Steelers start looking like, well, the Steelers.

“We’ve got to keep plugging,” Taylor said. “We’ve got to keep fighting. Can’t start reaching. Got to keep hustling, got to keep hitting. Eventually things will turn around.”

Coach Mike Tomlin, however, is apparently tired of waiting.

Tomlin benched defensive end Ziggy Hood in favor of Cam Heyward for Sunday’s game at the New York Jets, made rookie Vince Williams a starter at inside linebacker and is apparently done trying to keep first-round pick Jarvis Jones on a leash at outside linebacker.

Saying Tomlin is looking for a spark might be a little over generous. At this point, the coach would settle for anything resembling the kind of chaos that has made the Steelers the gold standard on defense for the better part of four decades.

“We have to minimize big plays,” Tomlin said. “I think that has been an issue for us. At times, there have been breakdowns, but other times there have been missed tackles. We just need to get more solid in that area ... and make people work to produce points against us.

“That’s how we’ve done it for a long period of time.”

That’s not how they’re doing it now. Taylor downplays the thought opponents have caught up to Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Pittsburgh’s biggest issue, Taylor said, isn’t the scheme but the execution.

“People have known what we’ve been running since coach LeBeau been coaching,” he said.

And finally, it appears, they’ve found a way to deal with it. The Steelers are 25th in the NFL in yards rushing against, giving up nearly 123 yards a game, something they haven’t done in 14 years. Pittsburgh has just four sacks in 124 drop backs and only one by somebody not named LaMarr Woodley.

Giving Heyward more snaps might help. The former first-round pick is second on the team in quarterback pressures (nine) despite spending more of the first four weeks playing sporadically behind Hood and Brett Keisel. Heyward’s blossoming playmaking hasn’t gone unnoticed. At 6-foot-5 and 283 pounds, he’s always had the phrase to be disruptive. Now he has the confidence too following a decision he made in the offseason to stay in Pittsburgh and spend time in the film room.

Heyward made a habit of picking up former teammate Alameda Ta’amu and driving to the team offices where he would spend hours working out and pouring over videotape, aware he was at the point in his career when it was time for him to make the leap from contributor to impact player.

“I’ve started trusting what I’m seeing,” Heyward said. “The game feels more comfortable when you know what you’re doing.”

When asked why he finds himself on the bench, Hood just shrugged his shoulders.

“They just had to make that change for some reason,” Hood said. “I’m here to accept it and keep moving.”

There’s no other choice. With Heyward and Woodley stacked on top of each other on the left side of the Pittsburgh defense, opponents have to figure out a way to effectively block both. That might be an issue for the surprising Jets (3-2), who are winning almost in spite of themselves.

New York’s 12 turnovers lead the AFC, one ahead of the Steelers. Most of those miscues have come from rookie quarterback Geno Smith.

Heyward thinks one fortunate bounce might be all it takes for Pittsburgh to get its act together.

“Sometimes you need a little bit of luck,” he said. “It’s four games in. It’s hard to judge a whole season by this but we have to pick it up and not let this continue anymore.”

 

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