On the Steelers: Defense might be main culprit in 0-4 start

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The Steelers lost their first four games for many reasons and those are cited many times: Problems in the offensive line, running the ball and turning it over.

Another major reason, perhaps the biggest of all, is the decline of a once-great defense. The swagger on defense has changed to a stagger. The fall from grace has been precipitous.

A defense that finished No. 1 overall in the NFL in each of the past two seasons, and has not dropped below ninth since the previous century, is at No. 10 today in yards allowed. But that's not nearly the complete story.

The defense once known as Blitzburgh because of the way it rampaged through offenses -- sacking and pillaging quarterbacks, slashing footballs out of their hands and swiping them when they threw them -- has become Pffffftzburgh. They have the same number of turnovers as Animal House's John "Bluto" Blutarsky's grade point average -- zero ... point ... zero.

LaMarr Woodley has come back to life as a pass rusher with three sacks, on pace for 12 over a full season. Trouble is, the rest of his teammates on defense are on pace to have four sacks combined over a full season.

As a team, that puts the Steelers on pace for 16 sacks in 16 games, or the same number James Harrison rang up by himself in 2008. Four times through the years they have had 10 in one game. They are on pace to eclipse their record of sack futility (19) set in the horrific 1988 season, when they had their worst record since the NFL merger at 5-11 -- a number they also might challenge.

They have fewer sacks than any defense in the NFL and are tied with the 0-5 Giants with an average of one per game. It's not because they don't get their chances at the quarterback; they rank 31st in the NFL in sacks per pass play.

The Steelers defense has turned as hitless as the Pirates' Neil Walker in the National League Division Series.

But that's still not as baffling as their inability to force a turnover, or at least luck into one. They are the only team in the NFL without one.

There's also a matter of stopping the run. The Steelers ranked No. 1 doing that four times this century. They were No. 2 twice, including last season, and No. 3 four other times since 2001. Today, they stand 25th against the run. The only time they finished a season lower than that since the 1970 merger came was, again, in 1988 when they ranked 28th.

They don't quite have the look of a Steelers defense that the late Dwight White once called "soft and cheesy" in the 1980s, but they're making Warren Sapp's comments from two years ago look only a bit premature, that they're "old, slow and it's over."

Toward that end, coach Mike Tomlin announced Tuesday he will make a major change in his starting lineup by switching one former first-round draft pick with another -- Cameron Heyward (2011) will replace Ziggy Hood (2009) as the starting left defensive end.

"He has and he will play more and deservedly so," Tomlin said of Heyward, who has been spelling Brett Keisel the past two seasons at right defensive end.

"I think he's been really solid, not taking anything away from Ziggy. Obviously, both guys will continue to play. We just want Cam to play more than he's been playing and in order to ensure that, we're going to put him in the starting lineup."

And that will be the extent of the lineup changes on defense as the Steelers prepare to play at the surprising New York Jets (3-2) Sunday.

Oh, and there will continue to be an emphasis on tackling and ripping the ball away from opponents.

"From a player's standpoint, even though we're not practicing in pads, I think that ball security and getting to the football on defense are things that you can practice, regardless of circumstance," Tomlin said. "From a ball security standpoint, it's mechanics -- the points of pressure on the ball and making it as a point of emphasis.

"Defensively, obviously tackling, as big of a part of tackling as anything is the approach and making sure that you have correct angles to the ball, you have bent knees and ankles. We have an opportunity to do that every time the ball is snapped."

Quick hits

• Tomlin called the trade for Levi Brown "a critical acquisition" for "a veteran, battle-tested offensive tackle" and said Brown will continue to alternate with Kelvin Beachum at left tackle in practice.

• Tomlin said he "absolutely" still sees something in Mike Adams, demoted after four starts at left tackle.

"The most important thing is not maybe what has happened to him to this point, it's how he responds to it and moves forward. I think it's going to have an opportunity to define him and his career."

• Steve McLendon, who took over this season for departed Casey Hampton at nose tackle, received a vote of confidence.

"I think that Steve has played some good games," Tomlin said. "He's had some positive plays and I think he's had some plays that he'd like back, like all of us. I like where he is. We expect him to continue to grow and get better into the position. The arrow is pointed up with him and that position in my opinion."

Steelers

Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published October 8, 2013 8:00 PM


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