Steelers' defense seems to snooze too early late in games
Friday, November 11, 2011
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
That late 92-yard winning drive Sunday by Baltimore surprised many members of the Steelers' No. 2-ranked defense, even though it has become more commonplace the past three seasons.
They and their fans should be used to it by now because it happens more often than they might like to admit. That includes a loss in Houston this season when an 85-yard fourth-quarter touchdown drive gave the Texans a 17-10 victory. There also was the near embarrassment when the winless Indianapolis Colts scored a touchdown to tie the score with 2:09 left in the game.
The defense slipped a spot to No. 3 this week after Joe Flacco hung 300 yards passing on the Steelers with yet another interception-free game. The Steelers defense's two interceptions are tied for fewest in the league and its four takeaways are tied with Miami for the fewest, although the Dolphins have played only eight games. The record low for a 16-game season is 12 by the 1986 Redskins.
Couple the anemic takeaways with the defensive lapses late in the game, and it's a wonder the Steelers are 6-3 and only a half-game behind the two leaders in the AFC North Division.
Linebacker James Farrior, who captains that defense, did not play last Sunday because of a hamstring injury, but acknowledged it was no fun to watch the long winning drive by Baltimore.
"It was definitely sickening," Farrior said. "As a guy watching it from the sideline, I felt especially bad. We just have to get off the field. We had a lot of opportunities to get off the field, a lot of chances, and you just have to make that play. Somebody has to get that one play to get us off the field."
It's become an all-too familiar sight, including a near classic collapse the last time the Steelers played in Cincinnati, Nov. 8, 2010. The Steelers were cruising, 27-7, in the fourth quarter. Then the Bengals scored two touchdowns and quarterback Carson Palmer had them perched on the Steelers 12 with two downs and 44 seconds left to win it. He threw incomplete to Terrell Owens, and then James Harrison broke up a pass to Jordan Shipley.
"The same way Ben has engineered drives against other teams, it's tough against a good quarterback," safety Ryan Clark said. "And then sometimes on defense you do slack off, not saying your intensity but you make different calls than you would during the game to keep everything in front and you have a team that's patient enough to dink and dunk it down the field ..."
The Steelers defense ranked second last season, yet fourth-quarter failings plagued them.
Besides that Bengals game in 2010:
• Baltimore beat them with a four-play, 40-yard drive to score a TD with 32 seconds left, 17-14.
• Miami drove 52 yards to kick a field goal to take a 22-20 lead late before the offense pulled it out with a late field-goal drive.
• After the Steelers scored a TD to climb within three of New Orleans, the Saints drove 55 yards for a late fourth-quarter touchdown to put the game away, 20-10.
• New England scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns in a 39-26 win.
• Buffalo moved 23 yards in 44 seconds to send the game into overtime with a field goal.
• The Jets moved 50 yards on 13 plays to kick the winning field goal in the fourth quarter.
• The Packers moved 70 yards on 10 plays to kick a field goal with 2:07 left and won, 31-23.
"I can't put my finger on why," said veteran defensive lineman Chris Hoke. "I don't think it's a lack of focus. I don't think it's a lack of conditioning. I just think that people are making plays and we're not.
"Even when we were the No. 1 defense in the NFL, we had collapses at the time."
That was 2008, when the defense in Super Bowl XLIII nearly suffered an epic collapse. Arizona, trailing, 20-7, took the lead on two fourth-quarter touchdowns after drives of 87 yards and 64 yards.
Many believe that was a prelude of what was to come in '09, when the Steelers collapsed monumentally during an infamous five-game losing streak, much of it because their defense allowed fourth-quarter leads to evaporate.
Hoke remembers those all too well, but he and no one is quite sure why the defense has failed late in games.
"I don't know if guys are playing more cautious because they don't want to give up the big play or what. We don't talk about it. Maybe as D-linemen we don't want to rush too hard up field because we don't want to give up the extra scramble or extra time in the pocket. But it's frustrating to give up those things, very frustrating."
At least they are not losing once they get a big lead. Like Bill Cowher's teams before his, Mike Tomlin's are money in the bank once they get a lead of more than 10 points. Cowher's teams were 105-1-1 in those situations. Tomlin's teams are 33-1.
• Despite reports that he would be fined for a hit on Ray Rice, linebacker James Harrison said he received no such fine from the NFL this week.
• Trouble looming? Troy Polamalu did not practice for a second day in a row because of a rib injury. Others who did not: LaMarr Woodley (hamstring), Arnaz Battle (hamstring) and Emmanuel Sanders (knee). Everyone else practiced, although the Steelers listed Harrison as being limited because of a toe injury.
• Ben Roethlisberger has an ever-so-slight right shoulder injury from when he stretched the ball out to try to score. He said, however, it will cause him no problems Sunday.
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