Gene Collier: Steelers defense transforms



By rigidly-enforced custom, an NFL halftime lasts exactly 12 minutes, nowhere near enough time to neutralize -- schematically or otherwise -- a force of nature like Detroit's Calvin Johnson.

Yet this was the story of Sunday's all-but-inexplicable Steelers episode, at least it was after Johnson caught six passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns in the first half at Heinz Field.

He was Megatron, and then he was Mega-gone.

Steelers Report: Steelers 37, Lions 27

Steelers beat writers Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac talk about the Steelers' 37-27 win against the Detroit Lions at Heinz Field. (Video by Peter Diana; 11/17/2013)

"Absolutely nothing," Johnson said when asked later if he had anything in the way of an explanation.

It was funny how he'd described the full extent of his contribution after halftime -- no yards, no catches and no influence whatsoever as the Steelers came from behind for a 37-27 victory.

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who'd thrown for 327 yards by halftime and blasted Detroit out of a 14-0 hole with a 27-point second quarter, went 3 for 16 in the second half for 35 yards.

"There weren't any halftime adjustments at all," Troy Polamalu said. "We just gave up some big plays, some of them on missed coverages, but sometimes it was just a matter of great players making great plays."

But Troy, after allowing 27 points in a quarter, where were you emotionally?

"Where I was before the game," Troy said.

Of course, in a very peaceful place. I should have known better.

But that's not where some 58,000 well-soaked eyewitnesses were, not by an emotional mile. They were in that place where it looked as though Stafford and Johnson would pile up 1,000 yards and 50 points before everyone even got out of the rain.

"Personally, I was ticked," said defensive end Cameron Heyward, who helped a front seven working without injured starters Brett Keisel and LaMarr Woodley pitch a shutout in the second half. "I was ticked at our defense because we want to play better than that. I thought we came out with a lot of pride in the second half.

"But no, not a lot of adjustments. We ran some stunts. Our coverage did a great job, buyin' us time, and even though we didn't get sacks like we wanted (2), we were able to throw [Stafford] off his spot, and he drifted some balls."

The biggest adjustment likely came from safety Will Allen, floating deep in Dick LeBeau's dime package late in the fourth quarter. Ben Roethlisberger had just driven the offense 97 yards to a 30-27 lead with 4:46 to play, but just 18 seconds later, Stafford rolled out to his right, looking again for Mega-gone, and Allen thought he'd seen this play before.

"I'd seen it on tape against Dallas," Allen said in a boisterous home locker room. "They ran the same play in a two-minute drill against Dallas or a four-minute drill against Dallas. Same set. Same rollout. Same everything.

"That time they threw it to No. 18 [Kris Durham] because the safety bit. I just stayed deep, man. Playin' technique ball. Maybe [Stafford] thought I was single high. Maybe he was just targeting Calvin Johnson the whole time. I knew where Calvin was prior to the play. I just stayed deep and went up and made a play."

It was a curious call on a day of curious calls by Detroit's staff, the stupidest of which was a fake field goal in a situation in which a chip shot would have put the Lions up, 30-23.

But now, trailing 30-27, they sent Stafford rolling wide right and throwing long left, never a good idea, and Allen saw it coming from about Tuesday of this week. Allen's interception and 27-yard return was the uproarious preamble for Roethlisberger's fourth touchdown pass, a 20-yarder to Jerricho Cotchery behind a blown coverage for a 10-point lead with 2:29 left.

Allen's pick was the eighth takeaway by the Steelers defense in the past four games, that after getting only one in the season's first six games. It bailed out a secondary that had essentially allowed 27 points in 14:01 right before half, and it completed a cavalry charge to help Ike Taylor with Johnson.

Taylor struggled severely in stretches, committing two holding penalties on Megatron, dropping two interceptions at a total cost of 10 points, but ultimately it was Ike who was primarily responsible for the Mega-gone part of the show.

"Ike Taylor did a great job in the second half," Allen said. "We didn't change the game plan. Ike Taylor had him man-to-man. Followed him around the field. They made some plays in the second quarter, which we thought they would. You can't stop Calvin Johnson. But we slowed him down tremendously in the second half. Got some pressure up front. Got to confusing them."

Confusing them and everybody else.

In a three-way AFC North tie with their next two opponents, the Steelers will gladly take this looming opportunity to at least add to the confusion.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.

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