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.”