Cook: Steelers, Porter need to bring the urgency today
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Bottom line? The defense has been lousy. It gave up 41 points in Atlanta last week, tainted or otherwise. Overall, it ranks in the middle of the NFL pack, pretty shabby for a proud unit that was No. 4 last season. It is allowing opponents to convert a staggering 41.6 percent of their third downs. It has given up at least one scoring drive of 75 or more yards in every game.
And you want to know why the Steelers are on life support at 2-4?
Does this sound like a job for the NFL's most feared player, or what?
"I feel like I can be a difference-maker," Joey Porter was saying last week. "There's a certain edge I bring when I'm out there."
Won't it be cool if Porter brings a few big plays against the Oakland Raiders today, as well?
It might be enough to spare the Steelers yet another embarrassing defeat, one that effectively would end their season before the halfway point.
"I hang a lot of responsibility for our situation on me," Porter said. "I take the breakdowns of our defense personally. I know we're way better than how we've been playing. As captain of the defense, it's my job to make sure we get it right."
This is probably a safe bet: Porter will do more to help today than he did in Atlanta. He missed that game and the one before it because of a hamstring injury. The defense played well without him in a 45-7 win against the Kansas City Chiefs. It wasn't so hot in the 41-38 overtime loss to the Falcons. You can say the three fumbles and the onside kick sabotaged its efforts -- which Porter didn't, by the way, growling, "You can give 'em the ball 10 times on the 5-yard line, I don't care, we still have to hold 'em to field goals" -- but the defense was torched for 173 rushing yards, picked apart by quarterback Michael Vick and surrendered scoring drives of 75, 64 and 65 yards late in the game.
"Me sitting back with my street clothes on, drinking soda and eating popcorn at halftime, really doesn't help," Porter said. "Hopefully, I can do a little more this week than just wave the Terrible Towel."
That's why all eyes will be on No. 55 today. Aren't they always, though? Porter long has attracted attention but never more than this season, which started with him being anointed the Steelers' leader by no less than Jerome Bettis himself and then labeled as the NFL's "most feared player" by Sports Illustrated.
Those are heavy burdens and Porter hasn't done such a great job lugging them. He was spectacular in the season-opening win against the Miami Dolphins when he had two sacks and an interception return for a touchdown and planted a wet one on coach Bill Cowher. It looked as if it were going to be another hugs-and-kisses type of year for the Steelers defense. But Porter and the defense mostly fizzled after that game. They allowed 28 points to the Cincinnati Bengals and couldn't get off the field in the second half against the San Diego Chargers.
Ordinarily, it would be enough to make you think Porter, at 29 and in his eighth season, might be losing it a bit, especially because his game is based so much on speed and quickness. But this isn't a guy you write off easily. I tried early in the 2004 season when Porter played horribly in a loss to the Baltimore Ravens. He went on to make the Pro Bowl that year. Cowher seemed to be leaning toward doing it at mid-season last year when he suggested James Harrison might begin to share snaps with Porter. Porter responded by leading the Steelers to the Super Bowl and was their most valuable player down the stretch.
Today would be a great time to start another surge. The Steelers aren't just looking way, way up at the Bengals and Ravens in the AFC North Division standings. Their defense is expected to take on the Raiders without injured nose tackle Casey Hampton, the team's co-MVP last season. It's never a good thing to go into any game without Big Snack, but no one feels worse about it than Hampton. There should be plenty of good feasting on a Raiders offense that ranks 31st overall in the NFL and dead last in points per game, averaging a whopping 12.
"It's all about us, not about the team we're playing," Porter said. "As long as we play football the way we're capable of playing, as long as we bring a swagger and a sense of urgency, the other team doesn't matter."
Just in case, Porter promised to provide the emotion today.
"I'm definitely going to make sure our defense is ready," he said. "I'll get the guys a little more fired up and a little more focused. That's what I do ...
"What happened in Atlanta will never happen again."
It's a good thing. If the Raiders hang 41 on the Steelers defense, they might as well cancel the rest of the season.
First Published October 29, 2006 12:00 am