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Steelers allowing foes the run of the place

Pittsburgh, typically among NFL's best defensive teams, is struggling to stop the run and pressure the quarterback. Has coordinator Dick LeBeau lost his touch?

October 06, 2012|Sam Farmer
  • Raiders running back Darren McFadden beats the Steelers defense for a 64-yard touchdown run during their game last month in Oakland.
Raiders running back Darren McFadden beats the Steelers defense for a 64-yard… (Nhat V. Meyer / McClatchy-Tribune )

The Pittsburgh Steelers, typically the NFL's premier run-stopping team, are tied for 14th in that category this season.

They're tied for 29th in sacks with five.

Through three games — a win over the New York Jets sandwiched by losses to Denver and Oakland — the signature Steelers defense has looked occasionally stout but more often has shown its age. Seven Pittsburgh starters are in their 30s.

So, with the Steel Curtain hurtin', has legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau lost his touch? Has the NFL caught up to the father of the zone blitz?

Those are fair questions, although it's too early to tell. Sunday's home game against Philadelphia will be a good indicator, especially with the Steelers coming off their bye and having extra time to prepare. The Eagles are prone to turnovers and do a poor job of protecting Michael Vick, so the Steelers should be able to take advantage.

What's more, the Steelers are getting back from injury two of their defensive stars — outside linebacker James Harrison, coming off a knee injury to make his season debut, and safety Troy Polamalu, who has missed two games because of a strained calf.

The defense has particularly missed Harrison, because his spot, right outside linebacker, is the glamour position in that 3-4 scheme. That's the player who generates the pressure from the blind side of a right-handed quarterback, ideally racking up sacks, forcing turnovers, and — along with bookend LaMarr Woodley on the left side — collapsing the pocket on a regular basis.

Harrison and Woodley, once the league's top linebacking sack tandem, missed a combined 11 games because of injuries last season, and the defense felt their absence. Polamalu, always a problem for the opposition when he's on the field, has been frequently sidelined by injuries since 2010.

By Pittsburgh standards, the Steelers were average on defense last season, yet they still led the league in fewest yards and points allowed. That's how high LeBeau has raised the bar.

So it was a jolt to see Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer pick apart that defense the way they did, just as it's odd to see teams rush for 100 yards or more against the Steelers. Pittsburgh has allowed four 100-yard rushers in the past 19 games. That might not sound like many, but consider that between the end of the 2007 season and the start of the 2011 season, the Steelers allowed just one 100-yard rusher in 50 games, Baltimore's Ray Rice.

Steelers linebacker Larry Foote recently told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "That's embarrassing when you give up 100 yards around here."

The next challenge is containing Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy, the league's third-leading rusher who's averaging 96.0 yards per game.

The lingering question: Can these guys play like the Steelers of old, or are they just a group of old Steelers?

Full-blast Belichick

Maybe he doesn't trust his defense, or maybe he just wants to grind opponents to dust, but New England Coach Bill Belichick isn't big on taking his foot off the gas. The Patriots crushed Buffalo last Sunday, 52-28, and refused to coast, even after the outcome had been decided.

With 6 minutes 32 seconds left and the Patriots up by two touchdowns, they recovered an onside kick, and ended a six-play drive with a 25-yard touchdown pass on third down. On their next possession, up by three touchdowns, the Patriots drove to the Buffalo 19 and had an incomplete pass on third and 11 before kicking a field goal.

If Belichick gets any cold stares for running up the score, he can take solace in this: He's the king of fantasy football.

Same record, different outlooks

In a testament to competitive balance, three of the four NFC East teams are 2-2. The New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys have to feel very differently about those records, though.

For the Giants, it's business as usual. In their last two Super Bowl seasons, they bounced along at around .500 before gathering momentum in late November and beginning their championship runs.

As for the Cowboys, everybody's waiting for them to go off the rails.

Looking average

Tennessee's Chris Johnson finally "busted loose" against Houston last Sunday with 141 yards in 25 carries. But most of those runs came in the second half, when the Texans were up by three touchdowns on their way to a 38-14 rout.

That's not busting loose. Johnson might have a big game every so often, but he's closer to the back who gained four, 17 and 24 yards rushing in his first three games at 1.4 yards per pop.

Just missed him

Every team can point to draft regrets, and Seattle is no different. The Seahawks had the 25th pick in 2011 and needed a quarterback to replace Matt Hasselbeck. There was one projected first-round quarterback on the board when they selected — and the Seahawks liked him — but instead they went with Alabama tackle James Carpenter, a surprise at the time.

Texas Christian's Andy Dalton wound up going to Cincinnati as the third pick of the second round. Through four weeks Dalton has a 103.0 passer rating, 29.5 points higher than Seattle's Russell Wilson.

Grab the remote

Wonder whether the parents of punters hate the Red Zone Channel? The only time they get to see their son is when he's trying to make a tackle.

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