The Steelers were preparing to affix their Bengals blinders yesterday, but as of the noon hour, head coach Mike Tomlin still hadn't completely shaken the damage inflicted by the Broncos late Sunday night.
It seems Pittsburgh's destructively elegant defense, fully deserving of its prior status as a monument to impenetrability, suffered the way the side porch does when an early snowstorm buries it before the grill cover is on and the storm windows have gone up.
What a mess.
"It was several individuals, but we don't stand as individuals, we stand as a team," Tomlin said at the weekly media mingle. "As a team, we fell short, assignment-wise. We'll make corrections and move on."
Somewhere on the substantial manifest of shortcomings that resulted in the Steelers' second consecutive road loss, the head coach has doubtless identified the evident confusion of Dick LeBeau's defenders as potentially the most virulent strain of trouble. Rick Dennison, Denver's second-year offensive coordinator, repeatedly called for gambits the Steelers either misinterpreted or failed to recognize altogether.
One in particular, coming late in the third quarter on Denver's fourth touchdown drive, sent three receivers to the left of the formation, somehow confronting only one Pittsburgh defender. Technically, Troy Polamalu was lined up on that side as well, but in more of a blitzing attitude, seeming to change his mind at the snap and chase one-to-three wideouts toward the boundary.
Jay Cutler zipped a flat pass to Brandon Marshall, who pedaled 22-yards through the sideline traffic all the way to the 1, where safety Ryan Clark managed to keep him out of the end zone. Denver scored two plays later. (Marshall caught six passes that night for 77 yards, and it appeared no one could cover him until Denver police intercepted him at 14th and Blake streets at 2 a.m., flagging him for suspicion of DUI.)
"Troy was not supposed to blitz on that play," Tomlin corrected. "We got misaligned and they out-leveraged us and got a significant gain. A lot of times when you give up plays defensively, don't get me wrong, you want to give credit to your opponent for executing, but their success is usually your failure, and there were instances in this football game where we were not where we were supposed to be. That is just the reality of it.
"When the quarterback had a nice 31-yard play on a scramble, we were not where we were supposed to be. They hit the tight end down the field on the first scoring drive for a significant gain, [and] we were not where we were supposed to be."
There is, of course, considerable urgency awaiting the head coach's corrections, as there are a number of aggravating circumstances, most pointedly the status of starting defensive end Aaron Smith. His knee sprained against the Broncos, Smith is likely to be unavailable Sunday in Cincinnati.
Tomlin could not have been more succinct in relating what that means:
"Aaron is as good a player as we have on this football team."
The other really aggravating circumstance is, of course, that Carson Palmer will be available. The Bengals quarterback and his accomplished wideouts are not the matchup you're looking for the week after some of LeBeau's resplendent defensive camouflages have been solved on national television. Tomlin will take no solace in the fact that Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said Monday he did not watch the game.
Well, c'mon, "Desperate Housewives" was on!
"Carson Palmer has probably the strongest arm in football," Tomlin said.
Which brings us to Really Aggravating Circumstance No. 3, the fact that Clark, the starting safety, is suffering from an inflamed spleen, which is a condition I don't think I've ever seen noted parenthetically in any of the NFL's common injury reports, so let me be the first:
Clark (spleen), questionable.
For all of that, Pittsburgh's defense will still walk into Paul Brown Stadium having allowed fewer points, fewer yards, fewer first downs, and probably fewer assumptions of vulnerability than any defense in the league, and would be even more formidable if it weren't ranked 26th in the league in the percentage of red zone touchdowns allowed (opponents have six in 10 trips).
"Part of us being a great defense is making people kick field goals in the red zone," Tomlin said. "That has been an issue of ours dating back to the beginning of the season."
A week from Monday, this season will be half over. If some of these defensive issues aren't resolved, maybe more than half.