The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Pro

September 30, 2012

Steelers regroup after bye week

PITTSBURGH — Larry Foote is well-versed in the drill. Pittsburgh fans start with the hand-wringing every time the Steelers defense fails to look like its normal, intimidating self.

All of a sudden, the franchise morphs from veteran to just plain ancient – at least in the eyes of the public. It happened in 2009, when the Steelers slumped after their sixth Super Bowl title. It happened last fall after a slow 2-2 start had critics trumpeting Pittsburgh’s current run as a serious contender was “over.”

So, of course, it’s happening now after a couple of uncharacteristic second-half meltdowns have put the Steelers in an early 1-2 hole heading into this week. It’s all Foote can do to keep from rolling his eyes.

“We are old,” said the 32-year-old linebacker. “We’re always going to be old and that’s just the stigma.”

Besides, the reality is a little bit different.

While the Steelers certainly miss injured defensive stars James Harrison and Troy Polamalu, the truth is the defense is in the midst of a youth movement.

A slew of 20-somethings – linebackers Chris Carter and Jason Worilds, safety Ryan Mundy and cornerback Cortez Allen and defensive linemen Steve McLendon, Ziggy Hood and Cam Heyward – have all taken on larger roles this season, with mixed results.

For a place that lives by the motto “the standard is the standard,” at the moment, it’s not being met.

“It’s not the old guys, it’s we have to infuse the young talent and work together well,” safety Ryan Clark said. “What I think you lose is you lose chemistry sometimes when guys go out. We need to learn how to work together and fit together properly.”

And do it pretty quickly. There’s no guarantee that Harrison, who is dealing with a troublesome left knee injury that’s been bothering him for months, will be back anytime soon.

The prognosis for Polamalu’s strained right calf is better, but a decade of playing at the frenetic pace he sets for himself has taken a toll.

Nonetheless, the Steelers point out, things aren’t as dire as they appear from the outside. Pittsburgh is still seventh in the league in total defense, a number even Foote finds surprising.

“We ain’t thinking about who’s hurt and who’s coming back,” Foote said. “Of course, we want those guys back ... but we’ve got to keep moving. Last year, we were No. 1 in the league; this year, we’re seventh in the league. I’m not sure how that is happening, but we’re right there.”

Perhaps, but this time the issues go deeper than age or injury. The Raiders suggested after a 34-31 comeback win last weekend that Pittsburgh had become predictable on defense, that the wizardry that coordinator Dick LeBeau has used over the last decade is no longer as effective as it used to be.

There’s no one more aware of it than the 75-year-old LeBeau himself. Film sessions following both losses have been head-scratching affairs.

“I usually say, ‘You (dummy), why did you call that defense?”’ LeBeau said. “But we’re not where we want to be, and I think in this business you’re never as good as you think you are or not quite as bad as maybe they say you are. So, we’re getting a good effort and some good plays, but not nearly enough. That’s why we need to tighten up the cracks.”

Clark points out the Steelers are running pretty much the same system they ran when he signed with the team in 2005. They’ve finished in the top five in total defense every year but one since his arrival.

“It doesn’t matter if you know what we’re doing if you can’t stop it,” Clark said. “I think that’s what we have to get back to doing, is no matter what the call is, kicking the guy across from us’ butt and getting to the ball.”

Considering the way Pittsburgh’s offense is playing, the Steelers don’t need to be dominant, merely adequate. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is thriving in offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s new system, completing 68 percent of his passes and throwing eight touchdowns against just one interception.

While the running game has yet to get going, the way Roethlisberger is throwing the ball, it’s hardly been necessary. The Steelers lead the NFL in time of possession and are converting 56 percent of their third downs. Offensive tackle Max Starks called Roethlisberger’s mastery of Haley’s playbook “awesome” though that same efficiency only highlights how shaky the defense has looked at times, particularly in the second half.

Considering how little the defense is on the field, fatigue isn’t an issue. Yet, the Steelers certainly looked a step behind against the Raiders, letting Oakland erase a 10-point deficit and pull out a last-second victory.

“We can’t point fingers at anybody, we’ve got to use thumbs and point it at ourselves,” Clark said.

The good news for the Steelers is they travel no farther west than Dallas the rest of the season, and six of their final 10 games are at Heinz Field, where they’re nearly unbeatable against everybody not named the Baltimore Ravens.

It’s early. Besides, Pittsburgh isn’t prone to panic. The Steelers have been under .500 after three games 11 times since 1980. They made the playoffs in five of those seasons and only finished with a losing record twice.

Their perceived problems right now are nothing a couple of five-game winning streaks can’t fix.

“We’ll get a lot of guys back after the bye week,” receiver Mike Wallace said. “Even though 1-2 is not where we want to start, we still have a positive outlook on everything and I think we’ll be fine.”

 

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Pro
  • Pirates 0417 Pirates power past Brewers

    Andrew McCutchen hit his first homer of the season and drove in three runs, Pedro Alvarez had a three-run shot and pinch-hitter Josh Harrison broke a tie with a long ball in the seventh inning as the Pittsburgh Pirates handed the Milwaukee Brewers their first road loss, 11-2 on Thursday night.
    Harrison’s two-run drive down the left field line off Rob Wooten (0-1) was the second of his career as a pinch hitter.

    April 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • Penguins 0417 Jackets preparing for Game 2

    The Columbus Blue Jackets don’t feel they’re doomed after blowing a two-goal lead in a Game 1 loss of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
    “It’s not about missed chances, or feeling sorry about it,” goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky said at Thursday’s optional workout, 13 hours after falling 4-3 in Pittsburgh.

    April 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • racin 0416 Jennerstown Speedway gearing for May open

    Jennerstown Speedway released a very ambitious schedule on its website and continues to prepare for its 2014 reopening.
    The track is set to hold a practice day for drivers as well as an open house and media day on April 26.

    April 16, 2014 2 Photos

  • Pirates 0416 Dominant Cueto drops Pirates in matinee

    That playoff loss in Pittsburgh last year? Johnny Cueto never thought about it much. So getting a chance to shut out the Pirates in a rematch wasn’t any more special.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Penguins 0416 Penguins rally to wear out Jackets

    Brandon Sutter scored on a wrist shot from the left circle 8:18 into the third period, helping the Pittsburgh Penguins rally for a 4-3 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals on Wednesday night.
    Beau Bennett and Matt Niskanen scored power-play goals 45 seconds apart in the second period, erasing Pittsburgh’s two-goal deficit.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Shelley and McElligot Series serves as reunion for former Chiefs personnel

    Not so long ago, Bob McElligott, like most Western Pennsylvania hockey fans, would savor a long Pittsburgh Penguins playoff run.
    The Somerset native followed the Pens’ Stanley Cup-winning teams in 1991 and 1992.

    April 15, 2014 1 Photo

  • Malkin nearing return

    The Columbus Blue Jackets are the closest NHL team to the Pittsburgh Penguins, at least geographically. The two franchises are separated by 185 miles of highway.

    April 15, 2014

  • Reds swing way past Pirates

    Mike Leake doubled and hit a two-run homer Tuesday night, ending Gerrit Cole's winning streak and leading the Cincinnati Reds to a 7-5 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates that completed two days full of homers and delays.
    First, the NL Central rivals completed a game that was suspended in the sixth inning because of rain the previous night.

    April 15, 2014

  • Pirates Game 1 0415 Pirates edge out Reds in suspended game

    After all those home runs and an overnight delay, it was settled by a single.
    Andrew McCutchen doubled and came around on Russell Martin’s single in the seventh inning on Tuesday, giving the Pittsburgh Pirates an 8-7 victory over the Cincinnati Reds in the completion of a game that spanned two days and 10 home runs.

    April 15, 2014 1 Photo

  • Penguins 0414 Pressure on Penguins to capture Cup

    The statistics are gaudy.
    And if the Pittsburgh Penguins can’t find a way to extend their season into the final days of spring, ultimately forgettable.
    The same team that led the NHL in man games lost due to injury (more than 500) also earned 109 points, led the Metropolitan Division from mid-October on and received another peerless effort from star Sidney Crosby, who topped the league with 104 points and is a near lock for the second MVP award of his career.

    April 14, 2014 1 Photo

Poll

Do you think that Jack Williams will get the 270 signatures from city residents needed in order to have a referendum placed on a municipal ballot to have the city's pressure test mandate repealed?

Yes
No
I'm not sure
     View Results
Order Photos


Photo Slideshow

House Ads