LeBeau: Steelers defense will be fine
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau talks with Troy Polamalu during organized team activities Thursday at Heinz Field.
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Three months from tomorrow, the Steelers will open the 2012 season where they ended their 2011 season five months ago today.
Denver! Slowly they turned, step by step, inch by inch. They do not wish to replay that old Niagara Falls trick of theirs in Denver when they open this season Sept. 9.
It hit particularly hard a defense that finished the regular season as the best in the NFL in several important categories, but one that was shredded by Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. If he could do it, what might Peyton Manning do to them this time?
"I sure hope we do a little bit better out there than we did the last time, and we will," coordinator Dick LeBeau promised. "I think we're playing a pretty good quarterback, though."
LeBeau was quick to note that 2011 team ranked No. 1 in scoring defense, total defense and pass defense. Yet, he said he still has no answer for the 316 passing yards Tebow struck them for on 10 completions, including the only play from scrimmage in overtime, his 80-yard touchdown strike to DeMaryius Thomas.
"If I had an answer for that, it wouldn't have happened. But I can tell you this, in the National Football League, a game like that can happen every Sunday, and does happen somewhere around the league. And I don't care what your stats are,
"I don't care who you have out there, the other people have skilled people, too. It only takes a couple plays as we saw, and it's a lot of yards and a lot of points and you end up losing."
LeBeau's defense also took some hits after the season when the Steelers cut linebacker James Farrior, defensive end Aaron Smith, cornerback Bryant McFadden -- all 2011 opening-day starters -- longtime backup nose tackle Chris Hoke retired, and cornerback Willliam Gay signed with Arizona.
Yet there isn't much competition for starting jobs.
Ziggy Hood replaced Smith at left end and stayed there last season, although he will be pushed by Cameron Heyward. Larry Foote takes over at the buck linebacker spot for Farrior, yet he has another big talent behind him as was the case when Lawrence Timmons pushed Foote all the way to sign with Detroit in 2010. LeBeau raved about rookie Sean Spence, a third-round draft choice from Miami.
"I don't have any concerns about Larry playing the buck, but we're going to have to replace numbers there. Somebody is going to have to step up in there. We have some guys who are experienced and some who are not. But I do like our draft choice. He's done everything any first-year player could do in coaching sessions without pads. I think we're in the right direction there."
The most intense competition comes at left cornerback, where Keenan Lewis and two draft picks from 2011, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown are competing to replace Gay, who replaced McFadden after the first game last season.
"I definitely feel good about Cortez and Curtis," LeBeau said.
What he did not feel good about last season -- aside from the stunning loss in Denver -- was the number of turnovers his team produced. It managed only 15, including just four fumble recoveries, their fewest since they could find records starting in '66.
"That's something we have to get better at,'' LeBeau said. "Just preach it and practice it. Turnovers are funny, one year you're up there, the next year you're not. But I see no reason why we were as low as we were last year. That's not good. We have to improve that number."
As he did once this time last year, Ben Roethlisberger wore Max Starks' No. 78 at practice. He said it was to honor him. Starks remains an unrestricted free agent as he rehabs from ACL surgery in January. It is possible the Steelers will re-sign him; they did that last year after the fourth game of the regular season.
First Published June 8, 2012 12:00 am