Steelers' defense is dying with every big play

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In what must seem as though it were eons ago, or perhaps just a dream of better days gone by, Troy Polamalu spent the other day recalling a season in which the Steelers defense was not yielding big plays at an alarming clip, not like they are after just eight games of the 2013 season.

And it wasn't that long ago.

In 2011, the Steelers ranked No. 1 in the National Football League in total defense, scoring defense and pass defense. They were the only team in the league to record two shutouts that season. Their pass defense was so tight, they allowed only 21 pass plays of 25 yards or longer, easily the fewest in the league. They allowed a league-low two passes of 40 yards or longer, just one longer than 50 yards (73). And they didn't allow a run longer than 42 yards.

Polamalu was standing at his locker, trying to make sense of the disparity.


Today's Game

Matchup: Steelers (2-6) vs. Buffalo Bills (3-6), 1 p.m., Heinz Field.

TV: KDKA.


"That's kind of weird," said the seven-time Pro Bowl safety. "It's amazing we've been on defense that only gave up one big offensive run and one big pass play and now we've given up so many. You hate to look back like that. You try to think of what your mental preparation was going into each game and how we were prepared each game and what the difference is between now and then."

The Steelers have spent the past week trying to determine what the difference is in a defense that, less than two years removed from their 2011 performance, has collapsed in a monumental heap.

They are coming off a game against the New England Patriots in which they gave up more points (55) and more yards (610) than at any point in their 81-year history. On top of that, they gave up two more plays of 50 yards or longer -- passes of 57 yards to Danny Amendola and an 81-yard touchdown to Aaron Dobson -- pushing their season total of plays allowed longer than 50 yards to eight, most in the league.

Alarming?

Absolutely.

In Mike Tomlin's first six years as coach, the Steelers allowed a total of 18 plays longer than 50 yards, an average of three per season. Of those, only one was a run -- a 64-yard touchdown by Oakland's Darren McFadden last season.

In only eight games this season, they are almost halfway to that total.

They've already allowed three runs of 55 yards or longer -- the longest was Terrelle Pryor's 93-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage in Oakland -- and five passes of 51 yards or longer. And they still have half a season to go, beginning with today's 1 p.m. game against the Buffalo Bills (3-6) at Heinz Field.

Alarming?

It is when you consider that in 2011 and 2012 combined, the Steelers allowed only four passes of 40 yards or longer, fewest in the league. Only two of those were longer than 50 yards.

"It's been a tough year overall," safety Ryan Clark said. "We've had situations where both have happened this year and they go hand in hand. When you're stopping people from running the ball, when you're stopping them in your base stuff, you don't have to get tricky, you don't have to do anything that puts anyone in bad positions, and the guys on the back end can just play the pass, and that's what we've had.

"When you have the run stoppers we've had here traditionally, people couldn't run it no matter how many we had in the box. If it was a seven-man box, they couldn't run it; if it was an eight-man box, they couldn't run it. So cornerbacks played the pass constantly, safeties were able to constantly stay deep. When you have difficulty stopping the run, other people feel like they have to come in and do different things. That's when you become susceptible to play-action passes."

Then Clark added, "If you know someone is not running the ball on you, you don't care if they fake it all day. You know that run is not going to be effective. But when you can't stop them, when you're trying to figure out ways to stop them from running it, that's when you allow big plays."

More big pass plays

With the advent of more spread offenses and multiple-receiver sets, big pass plays are on the rise in the NFL.

With most teams (20) having played eight games, there have already been 169 pass plays of 40 yards or longer at the mid-point of the season, or approximately 21 per week across the NFL. Projected over a 16-game season, that means there will be approximately 335 pass plays of 40-plus yards in 2013.

That is considerably more than last season, when there were 255; and even more than in 2011, when there were 299.

Based on the numbers, it only follows that defenses are going to be more susceptible to big pass plays. The Steelers, though, have taken it to a new level, at least for them.

"In defense, you have to be where you are supposed to be and see what you are supposed to see," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "In that regard, obviously, we aren't doing that consistently enough, because we are giving up big plays. We don't have the luxury of going to hindsight. We are looking forward. The guys have had a very good week of practice. We've gone back, quite honest with you, to page one. You are going to see an improved defense."

Big plays are particularly annoying to LeBeau, a Hall of Fame player and coach for 55 years in the league. His No. 1 mantra to his players has always been to not let the ball get behind them. The second commandment is tackle the catch and make the opponent snap the ball again.

But those tenets have been violated several times this season, and the reasons are as multiple as they are mystifying.

"If I knew exactly why we've been getting out of position, we wouldn't be getting out of position," LeBeau said. "We have to stop getting out of position and get where we are supposed to be and see what we are supposed to see. Play good, solid and fundamental defense, and we will play well."

Fundamentals might be in decline on a defense that has lost Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, James Farrior and James Harrison the past two years. Losing veteran Larry Foote, the player who sets the defense, to a season-ending injury in the opening game didn't help, either.

But how does that explain breakdowns in a secondary that includes veteran players such as Polamalu, Clark, Ike Taylor and William Gay?

It would be easy to dismiss the impact of the big plays by pointing up that the Steelers rank fourth in the league in pass defense and only two other teams (Houston, Seattle) have given up fewer passes of 20 yards or longer than the Steelers (18). But only three teams have allowed more pass plays of 40 yards or longer than the Steelers (7) -- the Bills (12) are one of them -- and no team has allowed as many plays of 51 yards or longer than they have (8).

"I have not seen this coming," LeBeau said. "There are bigger plays, but the total numbers were nothing like what I saw. We are in the lab. We are working on it. It has to go away."

But will they?

2009 all over again?

How could it all crumble so quickly, so drastically?

The same questions were being asked in 2009 when, one year after winning the Super Bowl and finishing first in total defense and pass defense and second in rush defense, the Steelers allowed five pass plays of 54 yards or longer and lost three games to teams who didn't have more than two victories. They missed the postseason for the first time under Tomlin.

One year later, the Steelers went back to the Super Bowl and led the league in eight defensive categories, including a club-record for fewest yards rushing per game (62.8). Since 2009, the Steelers had allowed just six pass plays and only one run of 50 yards or longer. Now this.

"Our guys know what to do," said veteran backup safety Will Allen, who was in back with the team after spending three seasons with them (2010-2012). "Everybody knows their technique, everybody knows what to do. We got to go out there and do it. If they get a couple plays on us, they get a couple plays on us. That's where our camaraderie and our teamwork, what we build together, the intangibles, will help us manage through a tough game, help us win fourth quarters. We still have that. We still have that intangible."

Perhaps. But finding it, believing it, might be another matter.

Or maybe it's just more simplistic than that.

"If Kobe Bryant shoots 15 balls and he wasn't focused on the one he missed, it would be unfair to say he wasn't focused," Polamalu said. "Sometimes you just give up plays and it's not focus. Truth is, you can point your finger at whatever mistakes there are. All I know is they are correctable and we'll have chance to correct them this weekend."

Or maybe he's dreaming again.


Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com; twitter: @gerrydulac

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