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fordfixer
10-03-2009, 02:41 AM
On the Steelers: Defense struggles with late leads
Saturday, October 03, 2009
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09276/1002735-66.stm

Perhaps it should not be so alarming that the Steelers' defense, the stingiest in the National Football League last season, already has allowed 27 fourth-quarter points in three games, including a disturbing 14 to the low-octane Cincinnati Bengals six days ago.

And maybe it should not be disconcerting that, in their past six games which includes all three postseason victories in the 2008 season, the Steelers have allowed 64 points in the fourth quarter -- an average of nearly 11 points per final quarter.

That average is significant because, not too long ago, the Steelers prided themselves on their ability not to blow double-digit leads in the fourth quarter. During the Bill Cowher era, the Steelers were 102-1-1 when they carried a lead of more than 10 points into the fourth quarter -- a statistic that reflected their uncanny ability to protect leads and keep late points to a minimum.

Granted, the Steelers have lost only one of their past six games when they had a fourth-quarter lead of 11 or more points, and that was their last-second, 23-20 defeat at the hands of the Bengals, when they failed to protect a 20-9 advantage.

But they also had allowed a 14-7 lead to evaporate in Chicago a week earlier when the Bears scored 10 points in the final quarter to beat them. And they nearly lost Super Bowl XLIII when the Arizona Cardinals scored 16 points in the final 7 1/2 minutes after trailing, 20-7.

All that has caused at least one player to think maybe it's time the Steelers change the way they play defense in the fourth quarter.

"If you watch the game film, we're not getting torched," safety Ryan Clark said. "It's not a situation where people are throwing bombs or running free or things like that. We're kind of getting picked apart underneath in critical situations where we need to make plays.

"We're making the right calls. We're doing the right things. We just need to be closer to people in those critical moments, the third-and-2s, the fourth-and-2s, and get them on ground when they catch it."

Understand, that the No. 1 motto of the Steelers' defense under Dick LeBeau is to prevent the big play. The Steelers pride themselves on not getting beat on long passes, and the numbers support their commitment: They ranked first in fewest 40-yard completions (2) and 20-yard completions (23) in the league in 2008.

The San Diego Chargers (2-1), who visit Heinz Field tomorrow night in a rematch of the AFC divisional playoff loss to the Steelers (1-2) last season, were one of the few teams to make not one, but two long pass plays against them. Wide receiver Vincent Jackson caught a 41-yard touchdown with a one-handed grab over cornerback Ike Taylor, and running back Darren Sproles scored on a 62-yard catch-and-run, though the latter was a meaningless score with 1:52 remaining.

"I think the No. 1 thing they do is that they probably play the [two-deep] coverage more than any team in the league," said Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who leads the AFC with 991 yards passing. "They have the two deep whether it is man underneath or just a straight two-deep zone. Therefore they get an opportunity to double your big guys outside."

Because the Steelers make sure they prevent the big play, they are prone to giving up a lot of underneath throws, something the Bears, and especially the Bengals, exploited in the fourth quarter in the past two defeats.

Consider:

Of his seven passing attempts on the tying touchdown drive, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler threw six passes just over the line or underneath the coverage, none longer than a 13-yard gain. The lone exception was when he hit tight end Greg Olsen for a 29-yarder down the middle of the field.

Carson Palmer moved the Bengals 85 yards and 71 yards for a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns, completing 11 of 16 passes, none longer than 14 yards. He was able to make nine first downs on those drives mostly by throwing underneath the two-deep coverage.

What's more, after blitzing Palmer on third-and-10 and forcing him to hurry an incompletion to wide receiver Chris Henry, the Steelers did not blitz him on fourth down, and Palmer bought himself time to find running back Brian Leonard on an underneath route for 11 yards against linebacker James Farrior.

After Palmer spiked the ball to stop the clock with 18 seconds remaining, he found wide receiver Andre Caldwell for thewinning, 4-yard touchdown.

When asked if teams are picking and pecking their way downfield on the Steelers, outside linebacker James Harrison said: "I don't think so. It came down to a situation where we had two opportunities in the last quarter to get off field, and we didn't. If we did do that, we win the game."

"Teams usually aren't patient enough to do that for two quarters," Clark said. "They get to the two-minute syndrome and they're like, OK, we have four plays to make it. But it's easier to dink and dunk and matriculate the ball downfield. That's been a problem for us. In those two-minute situations, teams can see that."

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