The Steelers hit an historic low when they intercepted 11 passes in '11. Yet they resembled prolific thieves a year ago compared to the pace they are on this season.
The Steelers have intercepted two passes, one by safety Ryan Clark against the New York Jets and one by linebacker Lawrence Timmons against the Tennessee Titans.
That puts them on a pace to have six interceptions over 16 games. To put that in perspective, they once had more than that in one game -- seven at the Kansas City Chiefs in 1974. Hall of Fame cornerback Jack Butler intercepted four passes in a game in 1953 against the host Washington Redskins. Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount holds the team record with 11 in the '75 season. Three others have had 10, including Butler and fellow Hall of Famer Bill Dudley.
Maybe you have to be a Hall of Fame cornerback to intercept passes. There hasn't even been a Pro Bowl cornerback play in their secondary since Hall of Famer Rod Woodson left. It's the biggest drought at Pro Bowl at any position on the team.
Those 11 interceptions a year ago tied a record for fewest of any in seasons of lengths between 14 and 16 games. Only in '55 (10 interceptions), when they played 12 games, and in '40 (8), when they played nine games, did they have fewer than 11, according to statistics included in the new book, The Steelers Encyclopedia by Chuck Finder. If they remain on their current pace, they will break that record.
Is it any wonder then that, while the Steelers rank fifth in the NFL in fewest yards allowed per game, they dive into a tie for 17th in points allowed? Only one team in the NFL has fewer than two interceptions -- the Dallas Cowboys.
Clark thinks he at least has the answer as to why they haven't produced more interceptions: No pressure and no hands.
"We dropped one the in last game and had other opportunities to get one -- down in the end zone on Kenny Britt's TD," Clark said of Keenan Lewis' drop and the pass that went through Ike Taylor's hands for a score.
"It's just about converting on it."
Coach Mike Tomlin, by the way, said Tuesday that Taylor "needs to get back to playing good, sound football."
There also is the lack of pressure the defense has put on quarterbacks the past two seasons. While pressure on the quarterback rather than sacks yield more interceptions, the number of sacks is a good indication of the pressure a defense brings. Last year, the Steelers hit a 21-year low with 35 sacks. They are on pace to match that with 11 today.
"Look at what we do," Clark said of the style of coverage the Steelers use. "We play a lot of man-to-man, a lot of fire zone which is basically man-to-man. You don't see the ball a lot. So, if you're not getting pressure and forcing bad throws, it's tough to get interceptions because you're not turned around where you can see the ball and look at it. That kind of goes hand to hand with our defense.
"As the pressure increases and as we're able to get to the quarterback, move him off a spot and rattle him, we'll have more opportunities for interceptions."
The Steelers expect their top two pass rushers, outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, to start together for only the second time this season Sunday night in Cincinnati. Harrison missed the first three games as he overcame a knee injury. Woodley left the fourth game with a hamstring injury in the first quarter and has not played since.
Tomlin had good news and bad on offensive right tackle Marcus Gilbert. He will miss the game Sunday and perhaps more with an ankle tendon injury, but, after visiting a specialist in Charlotte, N.C., it was decided no surgery was required.
Rookie Mike Adams will start in Gilbert's place and, with center Maurkice Pouncey also questionable with a knee injury, the Steelers will sign another offensive lineman. They have two on the practice squad, guard John Malecki and rookie guard-center Ryan Lee, but no tackles. Rookie Kelvin Beachum moves up as the top backup tackle.
"We have a few young men, I think, in here as we speak working out to potentially join us in some capacity," Tomlin said Tuesday.
Tomlin said safety Troy Polamalu (calf) will miss his second consecutive game and linebacker Chris Carter (hamstring) will not play Sunday.
Besides Pouncey, running backs Rashard Mendenhall (Achilles) and Isaac Redman (ankle), and linebackers Brandon Johnson (hamstring) and Stevenson Sylvester (shoulder sprain) are questionable for the game against the Bengals.
Defensive end Corbin Bryant, who spent most of last season on the practice squad and appeared in one game in '11, was added to the 53-man roster. He takes the spot of suspended nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu. The Steelers also signed offensive lineman Jacques McClendon to their practice squad and released tight end Jamie McCoy from that unit.
Linebacker Larry Foote said Tomlin did not give his usual speech warning his players not to get into trouble on their weekend off. He gave them a speech Friday back in Pittsburgh after the Thursday night game in Tennessee, but it did not include his customary warning. Less than two days later, Ta'amu got into a heap of legal trouble on the South Side.
Speaking in his regular Tuesday morning slot on FM radio's 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh, Foote said Tomlin always warns his players before a long weekend or bye week:
"Not to throw more gasoline on the situation but that's Mike Tomlin's number 1 speech -- don't be the guy, especially with days off."
But he said Tomlin was "a little more upset" Friday because of the loss at Tennessee and might have forgotten to give his warning.
"Friday wasn't a happy send-off meeting or speech, but he didn't drill into our head as he normally does," Foote said. "All through training camp and before our bye week or when we have a couple days off, he always says 'Don't be that guy, don't be down in Miami getting Tasered by the police.' He always gives us numbers if you're drinking to call this person, they'll pick you up. He's firm about that."