Pressure's on to improve lethargic pass rush

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It's not every day the director of football operations critiques the Steelers' defense, publicly. It's a rare day when Kevin Colbert speaks out about anything involving the on-field performance of his football team.

Yet early this year, Colbert proclaimed that the Steelers' pass rush was not good enough in 2006 and needed to get better this season.

The question as the Steelers prepare for their final training camp practices today: Does it appear it will get any better?

"That's been a point of emphasis," linebacker Larry Foote said. "Our DBs take a lot of hits, but I don't care who you got, if you're not putting pressure on the quarterback, eventually they're going to get open and the quarterback's going to be able to find them."

The Steelers produced 39 sacks last season, tying their third-fewest in the 15 years Bill Cowher was coach. They followed that with only one sack through the first two preseason games under new coach Mike Tomlin, and that by rookie cornerback William Gay.

Foote and other defenders say not to worry, that the pressure and sacks will come. Part of it may have to do, in a way, with Cowher's absence because Foote believes defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau now can implement more of his ideas on defense.

"I never heard it, but that's the rumor," said Foote of Cowher holding LeBeau back. "With Cowher knowing that defense inside and out, you know he had some say-so as a head coach. Eventually when Tomlin starts learning it I'm quite sure he's going to call some plays too. That's just natural.

"But Dick LeBeau's going to show his stuff."

The perception around the league is that the current crop of linebackers is not up to Pittsburgh Steelers snuff.

"Naturally, since we lost Joey Porter, people might think that," Foote said. "So we have a lot of proving to do. We know James Harrison can put up big numbers; he has that capability."

Harrison missed the first two preseason games with a rib injury, but should start Saturday night at Porter's old right outside linebacker spot against the Washington Redskins. That would allow Clark Haggans to return to his spot on the left side, with Foote and James Farrior in the middle.

Only Farrior has made a Pro Bowl, after the 2004 season, among the linebackers. Harrison has been a backup who has done well in spot starts. Porter moved to fourth among the team's career sack leaders with 60, but his production and effectiveness fell off last season and his salary was scheduled to jump to $5 million.

The Steelers concluded he was not worth that money, released him and the Dolphins gave him a $12 million signing bonus. He had his third knee surgery in three consecutive years last week and will miss the entire preseason.

The Steelers hope to improve their pass rush many ways. They think Harrison might give them more on the right than Porter did last year. Improved play in the secondary would give them more time to get to the quarterback. And they made their first two draft choices outside linebackers, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley.

Timmons has given them little because of a persistent groin injury stretching back to early May, although he did go through team drills for the first time in camp yesterday.

Woodley looks as though he can be a good situational rusher in his first season, replacing Haggans on passing downs.

"Woodley's been impressive," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "James can rush the passer too. He's so strong."

LeBeau also has plans to move Keisel around the field and not keep him anchored as the right, down defensive end. LeBeau is trying to devise ways to get around offenses, which have tried to devise ways to thwart the Steelers' pass rush through the years.

"Teams are starting to max-protect everything," said Keisel as another way of explaining the drop in sacks. "We're aware of that. Teams are doing a lot more of that with 3-4 teams -- leave the tight end and back in to protect the quarterback and hopefully someone will get open. That's what their plan is."

Keisel estimated that the Steelers hold back 80 percent of their defensive schemes during the preseason so their regular-season foes can't get a jump on studying them.

"Our defense we run in the preseason is basically pretty vanilla. We try to save our 'secrets' for when it really counts. We do practice them and work on them. About every week we get something knew he comes up with and see if it works."

One of those secrets is special, Foote said.

"We have a big wrinkle. Not a little wrinkle, a big wrinkle. We'll see it in September."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at .


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