Ron Cook: Steelers secondary turns into a weapon



CLEVELAND -- As a team, the Steelers' turnaround has been nothing short of remarkable. Three weeks ago they were down and out, dead and buried with a 2-6 record. Now after three wins in a row, the latest a 27-11 licking Sunday of the Cleveland Browns, they are very much alive in the AFC playoff chase with a game Thanksgiving night at Baltimore that promises to be tastier than your grandmother's best pumpkin pie.

Specifically, the secondary's turnaround has been phenomenal. The unit was largely responsible for the sixth defeat, a 55-31 loss Nov. 3 at New England, the worst performance by a Steelers defense in franchise history. Quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots offense cranked out a mind-blowing 610 yards. Steelers Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Ike Taylor and William Gay that day seemed old, slow, bad or some horrible combination thereof.

That was then.

Look at 'em now.

"We've got great talent all over the place," Gay said. "It doesn't matter what the name or number is on the back of your jersey. It's all about being accountable."

Accountable to defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who was widely criticized after the New England loss, prompting an angry defense of LeBeau from coach Mike Tomlin and the players that continued Sunday.

"We tried to play great defense today," Gay said. "We just want to represent Coach LeBeau. It's like trying to make your father proud."

Mostly, though, it's about being accountable to each other. Polamalu wants the other guys to know they can count on him. Clark, the same thing. Taylor. Gay ...

"The whole entire secondary got together after that New England game and talked about taking a level of humility about ourselves and our game," dime back Will Allen said.

Get ready.

Here it comes again ...

"We knew we needed to have some accountability," Allen said.

The results have been astonishing. In the past three wins, the secondary created seven of the eight turnovers by the defense. Sunday, Polamalu forced two fumbles and Gay had a forced fumble and an interception he returned for a 21-yard touchdown for the Steelers' final points.

Turnaround?

Are you kidding?

The Steelers forced just six turnovers in the first eight games.

"We talk about it all the time in practice and in games," Allen said. "Getting the ball back provides more opportunities for our offense and it gets us off the field. It's energetic for our team ...

"It all started with Troy today. He forced the fumble on that fullback run [by Chris Ogbonnaya]. That was a huge play for us. Troy doesn't say much, but he says a lot with his play. He was disciplined today. We all were disciplined. When we play that way, we're hard to beat."

Polamalu and Gay had sacks, two of the five by the defense. That's 10 sacks in the past three games after the defense had just 13 in the first eight games.

Gay's sack knocked Browns quarterback Jason Campbell out of the game with a concussion midway through the third quarter, although no penalty was called. That prompted outrage from the Browns bench and their fans, although it was hard to tell if the fans' anger was directed at the officials or because backup quarterback Brandon Weeden had to play. Weeden, a first-round pick in 2012, was booed lustily when he replaced Campbell for one play in the second quarter.

The ball seems to be finding Allen. He picked up Campbell's fumble after the Gay sack and returned it 49 yards to the Cleveland 4 to set up a touchdown that made it 20-3. A week earlier, in a 37-27 home win against the Detroit Lions, Allen forced a fumble and had a late interception.

"It does feel good to be around the ball," Allen said. "It feels good to be there for my teammates, to be where I'm supposed to be."

There it is one more time ...

Accountability.

The Steelers did allow Browns receiver Josh Gordon to have a monster day with 14 catches for 237 yards. But seven of those catches for 158 yards came in the fourth quarter, long after the game was decided and Taylor was playing soft coverage to keep Gordon in front of him to prevent the big play.

The secondary also had breakdowns in the second quarter against Detroit when Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson played pitch-and-catch to the tune of 27 points. But it stiffened in the second half with the game on the line, holding Stafford to 3-of-16 passing for 35 yards and shutting out the great Johnson.

"We're slowly bringing things together," Allen said. "We're getting on a roll at the right time."

The Ravens, also 5-6, are next Thursday night with a potential playoff spot very much at stake. The opposing quarterback -- Joe Flacco -- will be a lot more challenging than Campbell and Weeden.

"This one's over," Allen said. "We've got to get our minds focused on that game."

The Steelers' holiday plan is simple, really.

It's all about ...

You got it.

"When we're accountable," Allen said, "we're pretty good."


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