Waiting On Run Defense

The Steelers have no choice but to be patient with two key pieces. Jim Wexell explains in his South Side notebook:

Hey, did anyone see Larry Foote on Monday night?

"I did," said Cameron Heyward. "He was on a roll. He made, what, like seven tackles in the first half? I don't know what he ended up with but he looked pretty good out there."

He sure did. Foote, the 34-year-old middle backer for Bruce Arians' Arizona Cardinals did make seven solo tackles in the first half as he was all over the San Diego Chargers' backfield. He ended up with eight to lead his team. He also deflected a Philip Rivers pass at the line of scrimmage on fourth-and-2 to wrap up the one-point win.

"That's the Larry Foote I've known for 10 years," Arians told Fox Sports Arizona after the game.

Arians also told the reporter that he tried to get Foote last year, before Foote re-signed with the Steelers.

Foote, of course, replaced James Farrior as the Steelers' buck linebacker that year and recorded 114 tackles.

In the opener of the following season, 2013, Foote tore a biceps and missed the rest of the season. The Steelers moved on without him and, like most old Steelers these days, Foote moved on to Arizona.

"He's going to be a bell cow for us all year," Arians crowed on Monday night. "He's going to be the MVP of this defense," said Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson.

"He's smart, man," said Steelers nose tackle Steve McLendon. "That's all that is. He's just real smart. He watches film and he knows the tendencies of the other team, what they can run, what they're not going to run, what they're doing with a fullback in the game. Every time they brought a fullback in he was hitting the gap. That's all he was doing. He was just reading what they gave him, and as soon as that gap opened up he hit it. The Chargers tried to adjust in the second half but it was just too late. He was coming downhill by then. By then they were trying to play catch-up."

It was exactly what the Steelers were missing in allowing 183 rushing yards on 30 carries Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.

Not that the Steelers made a mistake in moving Lawrence Timmons over to the captain's seat and drafting Ryan Shazier in the first round. That's not the point here.

No, the point is that while the Steelers have run-and-hit speed, they lack that kind of tackling machine, a player -- much like James Harrison -- who craves contact.

Foote has always sought it out. He's not going to run and cover like Timmons and Shazier, but he's going to sniff out the ball, hunt it down, and tackle. The Steelers have been having trouble tackling since their preseason opener, and it continued against the Browns.

Mike Tomlin earlier this week blamed the defensive woes on communication issues, and if you saw the end of the Browns' first touchdown drive -- with Brett Keisel looking to the sidelines with both palms up in the air, and with Cam Thomas standing up tentatively over the nose like he knew he was in the wrong position, and with the Browns snapping the ball amid that confusion to score "a walk-in touchdown," as announcer Dan Fouts called it -- the miscommunication theme can be believed.

But how does that explain the rest of the 288 yards the Browns gained that half? It doesn't. The Steelers were lined up in time but were simply knocked off the ball.

They need two things: 1.) a hunt-down-and-kill linebacker with the taste for contact on his lips; and 2.) a strong-side defensive end who can re-route running games in the Aaron Smith mold.

Thomas is not in that mold. On one zone stretch play during that first Browns touchdown drive, Thomas was stood up while his linemates were attempting to slide their feet to the left and maintain their own gap integrity. But nose tackle McLendon crashed into Thomas and then Heyward joined the tangle and took all three to the ground into a dogpile of the Steelers defensive line. Terrance West ripped off a 22-yard run against that no-man front.

Heyward was moved back over to the left side for some snaps, and so was Keisel, and then later rookie Stephon Tuitt got some experience, but none could maintain his leverage on a consistent basis as the Browns pummeled that side of the line. OLB Jason Worilds, a decent pass-rusher, didn't have much luck holding the edge, either, and the composite result was a 6.1 yards-per-carry average.

Heyward said that he will get better over on the strong side. And it's obvious that Tuitt will, too -- eventually. Shazier will also eventually, hopefully, become that instinctive tackler -- at least that has been the promise throughout this off-season as he's been called "a faster Larry Foote." But they are rookies and can only develop at their own pace.

In the meantime, or, more importantly, against the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday, what must this Steelers front do to stop the bleeding?

"Stop the run," said Heyward. "One hundred and eighty yards is not acceptable at any level. And that means getting lined up quicker, staying on our gaps, just executing better. And we'll do it this year."

This year?

How about this week?

"We're going to make the proper adjustments," he said in making his own proper adjustment. "If it was perfect off the bat, I don't think there would be 15 other games. We have things to work on, and I'm excited about this week."


As Heyward was finishing up by saying he just needs "to get more reps and get more fluid" on the left side, a horde of media approached and changed the subject. It provided fuel for my next question.

This locker room's been through some chaos, hasn't it?

"Seriously?" Heyward said, before adding, "No, I'm kidding."

So, does it have an effect? Will the chaos swirling around the Ravens trickle down to the field Thursday night?

"Um," Heyward said as he pondered the question, "No. As weird as it sounds you can use it as a positive because it brings guys closer together, helps them rally around each other. It helps guys focus more. I know it's probably chaotic over there, but you've just got to stay together as a team, focus on the task at hand, and continue to grow."


Q: Hey, Robert Golden, we didn't know you could throw like that.

RG: "Yeah, man. I actually played quarterback in high school."

Q: Ever throw a pass in a stickier situation?

RG: "It was, but we kinda been practicing it for a long time now. So when they called it I was excited. I've been waiting to do it since last year. We actually had it called a few times and weren't able to run it."

Q: Why didn't you run it before?

RG: "We didn't get the look we wanted, so we never ran it."

Q: Did you have the option to throw to the other side?

RG: I did.

Q: He was open.

RG: "He was. But his guy kind of came in late. I saw (Antwon) Blake was open the whole time and we just went with that one."

Q: You were looking his way before the snap.

RG: "Right. Right. But I wasn't nervous at all. Like I said, we've been practicing it and man I was excited to run it. Just happy we got it called."

Q: Will you retire with a perfect passer rating?

RG: "Man, you know if they call it again we'll complete it again."


Long-time running backs coach Dick Hoak was the curmudgeon of the game-planning rooms and would admonish hare-brained schemes by saying, "We can't block that up." It sounds like Mike Munchak is bringing some of that old-school logic to the Steelers' room these days. Here's Maurkice Pouncey:

"He really knows how to attack the game. He knows how to help guys out. He knows guys' weaknessess and where guys are really good. The technique that he brings, man, with the way we're set now, different playcalls, trying to trick guys out. In years past guys kind of knew where we were running the ball, or not running, out of different formations. It's kind of hard now to figure stuff out."


Q: Antonio Brown, are you expecting to get fined?

AB: "Um, we'll see. We'll see."

Q: Have you heard the commentary?

AB: "No, I haven't got a chance but I heard everyone's excited about it."

Q: Excited is one word. Some of them were saying it was mean-spirited, intentional, that you should be fined, even suspended. What do you think of that?

AB: "Well I think the punter understood there was no intent to injure anyone. We'll let the higher sources all figure it out."

Q: Did you talk to the punter after the game?

AB: "Yeah."

Q: So he said, 'We're cool'?

AB: "He had a great idea what I was trying to do, jump over him. I think he kinda suspected that and it was a different outcome, but I think he had a great sense of humor about it."

Q: Will you ever try and jump over a guy again?

AB: "We'll see."

Q: Have you seen the Karate Kid edit going around the internet?

AB: "I haven't been looking up all that crazy stuff."

Q: Mr. Miyagi liked it.

AB: (Laughs).


Tuitt received his baptism under fire. His first two snaps at LDE ended with a 15-yard touchdown run. He played the nickel, too, during his handful of snaps. The speed of the game took him by surprise.

"Oh, it hit man," he said. "Like tchoo, tchoo, tchoo. It didn't take me long to get adjusted. I need to understand a couple more blocks, but when I get more playing time it won't be a problem. I'll grow from this. Definitely. It was good to go against them."


Backed up to their goal line, the Steelers opened the second half with two handoffs, a pass, and a punt. That sequence always turns up the heat of the local media, as it normally segues conveniently into a looming Roethlisberger v. Todd Haley showdown. One reporter thought he caught Roethlisberger heading in that direction.

BR: " ... We maybe weren't as aggressive in the second half as we were in the first half. You learn from it."

Q: What do you mean when you say you weren't as aggressive?

BR: "We weren't as aggressive."

Q: What does that mean?

BR: "It means a lot of things."

Another reporter changed the subject, so Haley's safe. For now.


Scanning the transcripts of the coordinator interviews, let's start with Haley:

* "We’re a game-plan offense but at the same time we’ve found our identity. We know who we are. That’s a good thing for us. There has been no secret to anybody in this building that’s wearing an offensive uniform of how we are going to play football. You see that. You might tweak a couple of things here and there but we are going to go out and be aggressive and get up on the ball a bunch throughout most games when we can with the crew we have right now. We feel comfortable doing that. We are going to worry about us and how we need to play and execute to be the best we can be. And I think we showed some real good signs. We are not all the way there yet but we got a win and can learn from it and move forward against another good defense."

* "I’d take that every week, 180+ [scrimmage yards] from the running back. I will always say 100 yards equals seven points. Coach Bill Parcells taught me a long time ago. So he had almost 14 points. He’s not there yet. He’s a lot further ahead from where he was. Now he has to show that he can go out and do it on a week-in and week-out basis. There’s a target on his back because he has the skill set to do a lot of things for us and be a terrific weapon, both running, protecting and as a pass receiver. I think there is still more out there for him and more to get out of him just from a developmental stage. But I would take that every week."

And move to Dick LeBeau:

* "Our two worst games no doubt have been with, well a half you might say, against the hurry-up, so we’re going to see it until we handle it."

* "The problems defending no-huddle I just think they’re never going to change. They’re certainly not unsolvable. We have to do a better job of keeping our poise more than anything and that’s what we’re working on. We’ll definitely be better on that."

* "The game is getting more spread out, more wide open, more wide receivers that you have to have speed on the field. You need some big people always (in) football, but if anything, defenses (are) trending towards a lot of little guys that can play the run, too."

* "We had excellent coverage on that play and actually Ryan Shazier picked up the guy that they wanted to throw to. Then when the quarterback had to hold the ball, because Ryan was in good position, Cam was able to beat his blocker and get in there and make the key sack. But that’s defensive football."

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