Collier: Steelers defense not up to standard
Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor tries to push Raiders wide receiver Louis Murphy out of bounds as he runs for a touchdown in the fourth quarter yesterday at Heinz Field.
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Comically entangled in a distasteful little hair-pull with the wretched Oakland Raiders yesterday, the Steelers looked very much as if they would win in spite of themselves, but then something really terrible happened.
Right. The fourth quarter started.
Don't know if you've noticed this, but the referee no longer hops on the field microphone and says, "That is the end of the third quarter," during Steelers games. He says, "That is the end of the Pittsburgh defense as we know it."
But if you thought Dick LeBeau's fellas have looked a little skittish this season in the final 15 minutes, yesterday's total panic was their deliverance to the next dimension; it not only turned Bruce Gradkowski into Brett Favre, it likely turned the formal defense of a Super Bowl title into something almost completely hypothetical.
The Raiders, who'd effortlessly lost eight of their first 11, who were barely averaging 10 points a week, who'd managed five touchdowns on the road all season, scored three in a little more than eight minutes against a Steelers secondary that again demonstrated the ball skills of a backhoe, but without all of the mobility.
With yesterday's four-alarmer, in which Gradkowski completed 10 fourth-quarter passes for 198 yards and three touchdowns, the Steelers have essentially perfected their utter collapsibility.
"I don't think so," linebacker James Farrior responded when someone asked if it was all traceable to the absence of Troy Polamalu. "I wish I knew."
But as Mike Tomlin always liked to say, the standard of expectation does not change -- "the standard is the standard," and there was no worse example than the emergency appearance of rookie corner Joe Burnett in the middle of the losing defensive stand yesterday. Burnett, forced into play when William Gay got a concussion courtesy of teammate Ryan Mundy, stepped in front of Raiders wideout Louis Murphy with 40 seconds remaining and the Steelers up 24-20, and dropped a Gradkowski pass that hit him right in the belly.
"I wish I could have it back," Burnett said. "We've just gotta stay together and continue to play sound."
This is sound?
Don't let me see unstable.
That makes four games in a row, all losses you might have noticed, that a defensive back has dropped an interception at a critical time. But speaking of things these guys would like to have back, we're making a list, checking it thrice.
They'd like to have back that fourth quarter in Chicago, when they led 14-7 but lost to Jay Cutler, 17-14.
They'd like to have back that fourth quarter in Cincinnati, when they led 20-9 but lost to Carson Palmer.
They'd like to have back that fourth quarter in Kansas City, when they led 24-17 but lost to Matt Cassel.
They'd like to have back that fourth quarter in Baltimore, when they led 17-14 behind a third-string quarterback but lost to Joe Flacco.
And they might like to have this back -- this sourest entry yet on the wish list, a fourth quarter in which they blew three leads -- 10-6, 17-13, and 24-20 -- the last evaporating on a 10-play 88-yard drive in 1:47 by The Great Gradkowski.
The Steelers have thus been outscored 105-78 after the third quarter, including 6-3 in overtime, and this four-game losing streak is essentially attributable to the seven completions of more than 40 yards the secondary has permitted in that nosedive.
"You can't finish games when you don't execute the way you're supposed to," said veteran corner Deshea Townsend. "Everybody's got to look at themselves and not point the finger. There are guys in here who've won a lot of games. We still have to think we can do whatever it takes. We're still in the hunt."
If they are, you should hope they're not hunting a football, because no one in the secondary wants any part of one.
On the play after Burnett dropped the fourth interception in four weeks (Ryan Clark took care of the first three), Gradkowski unfurled a sideline pass for Murphy. If the pass Burnett dropped cried to be intercepted, this one blubbered. It had the approximate arc of a Zambelli pyrotechnic and it was going to land right in the hands of Ike Taylor, had he had any.
Instead, Murphy snatched it for 23 yards to the 17 with 27 seconds left.
After Mundy's unnecessary roughness penalty moved the ball to the 11, Murphy beat some blown coverage in the left rear of the end zone for the winner with nine seconds left. It was his fourth catch, but it was enough to make him the third opposing receiver to shred this secondary for 100 or more yards in three weeks.
"Something about coming out here today felt different," said Murphy, the Florida rookie who beat Taylor for a 75-yard score earlier in the quarter. "We knew Pittsburgh was the defending champs and everything, but it's time to make our mark. Enough is enough."
That might be phrase that gets some play this week. Unfortunately, the standard is the standard.
First Published December 7, 2009 12:00 am