Collier: Open season on defensive backs everywhere

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A week after their national embarrassment in Nashville, the Steelers are still struggling to produce anything that could be interpreted as good news, so Wednesday they ordered in.

Marvin Lewis, still the coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, called the media room at Steelers hindquarters with glad tidings about his own offense, in particular its ineffectiveness on third down.

"We've had dropped balls," Lewis said. "We've had missed protections."

Well, the men down the hall will be tickled to hear that.

It's excellent news for a Steelers defense struggling to walk erect after three losses in five games, a fourth loss barely averted by a last-second swing of Sweezy's leg.

Watching Mike Tomlin's team play pass defense this fall has been little else but a marathon frightfest, but while the fanbase hereabouts tends to blame cornerbacks almost as readily as baseball managers, college passers, and Marc-Andre Fleury (doubtless solely responsible for the ongoing National Hockey League lockout), victimized secondaries just happen to be spread across the NFL map from sea to shining sea.

"Because of the way the game is changing and the various rules changes, it's becoming increasingly difficult to play defensive back in this league," said Steelers safety Ryan Mundy, who has played himself out of the starting lineup he played himself into because of the calf injury to Troy Polamalu. "You try your best to play by the rules, but the skill level of the quarterbacks and the receivers has increased so much that they now understand exactly where to put the ball."

That's a perfectly cogent observation in an era when even the best-coached secondaries are being shredded. The New England Patriots are giving up nearly 300 pass yards every time out, and 400-yard Sundays aren't atypical. The explosive spike in NFL passing yards is making good defensive backs look foolish. Man-to-man coverage is purely a high-wire act.

But, in my view, defensive backs are too willing to help themselves be embarrassed.

In one-on-one coverage, they're trained to anticipate and interpret certain body-language signals at a series of intervals in their receiver's route -- at five yards, at 10, 20, and 40, depending on the precise defense philosophy -- but there is something they appear to have stopped looking for altogether.

The football.

Perhaps they are too busy.

Seriously. YouTube the video of Green Bay's James Jones beating Houston's Kareem Jackson to the far right pylon Sunday night in Texas.

Jones makes a great, great catch of Aaron Rodgers' predictably perfect throw, but he should never have had the opportunity.

Jackson was with him stride for stride, exercising what secondary coaches call "control," meaning the only possible delivery channel would carry the receiver across the boundary for an incompletion. But Jones somehow reached around Jackson with his right hand, tipped the pass back to himself, and fell with a touchdown that would have been physically impossible if Jackson had simply looked for the football.

To be fair, Jackson did look, but only as Rodgers' throw was descending over the cornerback's late-swiveling head.

Jones' story on that one play isn't exactly The Greatest Catch Ever Told. It happens two or three times every week in this league.

Receivers of every body type -- rangy wideouts, towering tight ends, waterbug slot guys -- are not only catching balls at the intersection previously known as Shutdown Corner, they seem to be taking the football out of cornerback's ears, slipping it from their pockets, amid other inexplicable tactics of prestidigitation. I wouldn't be surprised if Cincinnati's A.J. Green could make a 35-yard reception by gently suggesting it away from some team's vulnerable sub-conscience.

All right don't look for that on YouTube just yet.

"I've been struggling with that question," Mundy admitted. "Why is it that the receivers can manage to get their heads [turned around to see the ball], and we can't get ours into that position?"

It's possible that secondary coaches and defensive coordinators have decided that many of their pass defenders are more useful just trying to be an impediment to the receiver than they are trying to play the football. The axiom that if defensive backs could catch footballs they'd be wideouts has held since the first passes flew.

But Mundy is right about the other aspect, namely the sophistication of the post-modern passing game. Five years ago, wideouts didn't even know they had a front shoulder and a back shoulder. They thought of them as left and right, if they thought of them at all. Today, many proven defensive techniques have been negated by quarterbacks throwing to the receiver's trailing shoulder, which can fade behind the coverage into another delivery route.

"The defender can still tip the ball, and a lot of interceptions happen that way because other defenders are coasting to the ball," Mundy said. "But a clean interception has become a rarity."

Yeah, especially around here. Steelers corner Ike Taylor, feeling vilified at the moment after a terrible time in Tennessee, said Wednesday that he's just got to step it up.

"Point, blank, period," Ike said.

Well yeah, unless there's a back-shoulder pass, in which case he'll have to step it back.

Thankfully, the Bengals are dropping their third-down passes anyway.

There's your good news. Thanks again Marvin.

genecollier


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