Head to head: Steelers WR Santonio Holmes vs. Chiefs CB Brandon Flowers
Beware of Blitzburgh. The Steelers' defense has 18 sacks and 11 takeaways (three for TDs) during their five-game winning streak.
Suddenly, the big pass play has disappeared from the Steelers offense. After torturing opposing secondaries with long passes in the first six games, the Steelers are finding them harder to come by than swine flu shots.
And maybe the player affected most by the drought is Santonio Holmes, the Steelers' big-play receiver.
To be sure, Holmes has 13 catches for 132 yards in the past two games, including seven for 88 yards in the 18-12 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. But he has been unable to shake the shackles of two-deep coverage for big pass plays and hasn't caught a touchdown since the season opener against the Tennessee Titans.
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has even tried switching positions with Holmes and rookie Mike Wallace in attempt to create more space for last year's Super Bowl Most Valuable Player.
"They pretty much been taking them away [since] the beginning of the season, but that's part of the game," Holmes said. "They got to start finding all the wrinkles in every team's game and they start putting together more and more things for you."
Ben Roethlisberger could manage only one pass longer than 20 yards against the Bengals, and that was a 21-yarder to Holmes in the second quarter that helped set up Jeff Reed's second field goal. A week earlier, he had only two passes of 20 yards or longer against the Denver Broncos, though that game had a much different outcome.
One of the reasons for the decline in big pass-plays against the Bengals was because the Steelers often had to use tight end Heath Miller and third-down back Rashard Mendenhall to pass protect to stop Cincinnati's pressure.
Nonetheless, that is a significant drop from the first six games of the season when Roethlisberger led all NFL quarterbacks with 27 passes of 20 yards or longer.
"Once you put plays like that on tape, I don't know if teams change their coverage, but maybe they're less apt to bite on underneath routes," Miller said. "I'm sure teams are aware of that, especially with Mike [Wallace] and his speed. Maybe sooner or later, they'll take the bite and we'll hit one over the top."
That's what the Chiefs (2-7), today's opponent in Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, have been doing for most of the season.
They give up more big pass plays than any team in the National Football League, allowing a league-high 12 passes of 40 yards or longer. One of the reasons might be their inexperience at cornerback.
Both starters, Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr, are in their second NFL season, though each started at least 14 games as rookies.
"They got young guys in the secondary, but they've been in dogfights all year and haven't been blown out," Holmes said. "They still have the capabilities to stop long plays."
First Published November 22, 2009 12:00 am