Nothing epitomized how far the Steelers defense has slipped more than Mike Tomlin’s actions Sunday with 2:33 left in a game at Heinz Field in which they trailed the Miami Dolphins by three points.
He ordered his offense to try to pick up a first down on fourth-and-10 at its 10, even though the Steelers had two timeouts and the clock-killing two-minute warning left.
He did not trust his defense to stop the Dolphins and get the ball back for his offense with enough time to try to at least tie the score with a field goal.
Players still hopeful Steelers can improve
Ben Roethlisberger, Jarvis Jones and Cam Heyward talk about improvement as the Steelers prepare to play the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field. (Video by Lake Fong; 12/11/2013)
To make sure no one misunderstood, Tomlin said so afterward when asked why he did not punt.
“We hadn’t done a great job of stopping him in the second half,” Tomlin said of Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill, “so we weren’t ensured of getting the ball back. If you punt there, they have an opportunity to convert third downs and kill the clock and the game.”
Boom! That is one dagger-to-the heart of his defense, something well earned as they continue to give up big plays more often than any other NFL team — 11 of more than 50 yards this season — and slip down all the rankings.
A defense that ranked No. 1 in fewest yards allowed the past two seasons, ranks 12th in the NFL in that category, 16th in yards per play and 15th in points allowed.
Here are some other unflattering NFL rankings for a defense that is not used to this: 24th in rushing yards allowed, 27th in interception percentage, 26th in sacks per pass play, 20th in third-down efficiency. If that were a report card, the student might be grounded.
Linebacker Larry Foote has been involved in that defense since 2002 except for his one year in Detroit in 2009. He has been on injured reserve since the first game of this season, but attends all of their meetings and serves as an adviser to the young linebackers.
He said he has never seen anything like it on defense. He said while he might have punted the ball in that situation Sunday, he understood why Tomlin did not.
“He said he didn’t have trust in our defense,” Foote said on his weekly Tuesday morning radio spot on 93.7 The Fan. “That’s a shot! We need to take that personally and get the faith back from our head coach.”
Foote agreed that it was a fair statement “when you look at our numbers, the amount of big plays we gave up. I know last week before that game we ranked like 22 [vs. the run]. That’s uncharted waters for me, especially around this town and what we did this past decade in defensive football.
“Hey, we have to take it, we have to own it, we have to accept it. The head man said ‘I didn’t trust you guys, you guys have to play better.’ He felt in order to win that game, our offense was going to have to do it and our defense didn’t give him what he wanted.”
The Steelers have dipped below their current No. 24 ranking against the run once in their history since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. They ranked 26th in 1999, when they finished 6-10, tying for the second-worst record over the past 43 years. Last year, they were second against the run, and they have been in the top 10 of the NFL the past nine seasons, twice No. 1.
They have hemorrhaged players over the past few seasons, including former Pro Bowlers Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, James Farrior and James Harrison.
There also could be the age factor. Brett Keisel, 35, has missed almost all of the past four games with a foot injury. Troy Polamalu, is 32, but has not missed a snap on defense. Ryan Clark is 34. Ike Taylor is 33.
“It’s been our whole defense, everybody has to chew it,” Foote stated. “You lose games by missed tackles and blown assignments, and that’s what we’ve been doing all season.”
Tomlin blamed the abundance of long plays for the dropoff on defense.
“The reality is the 50-yard plays eliminate a lot of execution. We’ve had quite a few splash plays that have really eliminated a lot of execution opportunities for our opponents and really execution opportunities for us. … Largely, over the course of the year, we’ve given up too many big plays.”
Tomlin said they have occurred over a broad area of players and schemes.
“Really, what it says is we’re falling a little short of being the type of group that we desire to be, the dominant type of group.”
Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.