Defensive Backs Look To Redeem Themselves

If the first day of training camp means anything at all, Dewayne Washington should consider himself redeemed. <br><br> The Steelers cornerback stole the show Sunday by tipping the first pass of camp into the hands of safety Brent Alexander and later returned his own interception for a touchdown.

It's the way Washington figures a season should start, particularly since the last one didn't end nearly so well.

"It took a little while to get that out my head," Washington said of his complicity in the Steelers' overtime playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans.

Against the Titans, Washington missed a tackle on receiver Justin McCareins and the result was a 31-yard gain. It moved the ball into Steelers territory, but Joe Nedney missed a 31-yard field-goal attempt. Washington, of course, ran into Nedney on the play and the Titans got another chance and won the game with a 26-yard field goal on the next play.

Washington says he's over it, and that it wasn't difficult. Yesterday's practice may have been proof, but he and the rest of the secondary remain firmly under the microscope.

Age is one factor. Washington's 30 years old. Free safety Brent Alexander is 32. Also, last year's backup at free safety, Mike Logan, is moving over to replace departed strong safety Lee Flowers and Logan is coming off of knee surgery. The Steelers traded up 11 spots in the first round for another strong safety, but Troy Polamalu is holding out.

Aside from three undrafted rookie free agents, the only newcomer to a secondary that finished 20th in the league in passing yards allowed last season is fourth-round draft pick Ike Taylor, a cornerback who played the position only one season at Louisiana-Lafayette.

Unless Polamalu can crack the lineup after he signs, the Steelers will again go with what they had last year.

"I think the guys have a little chip on their shoulder, and so do I," said defensive coordinator Tim Lewis, who really didn't offer a solution.  

"The bottom line is sometimes you can overdo it and over-coach them and try to trick people as opposed to just lining up and playing football. I think we'll just put our good players out there and let them play."

A better pass rush might help. The Steelers led the AFC with 50 sacks last season, but on third down -- a down that calls for maximum pass protection from the offense -- the pass rush fell off markedly. Opponents turned third down into first down 43.6 percent of the time to place the Steelers 27th in the league in third-down defense.

"I think pass coverage and pass pressure go hand in hand," Lewis said. "The secondary gets vilified because they see yardage. All people care about is yardage and percentage of completions and that's how secondaries are graded. They don't take into account necessarily sacks and so forth until the very end. Then you have to look at how many attempts they had, so no matter how you slice and dice it there's always going to be a villain and a hero. The secondary got to be the bad guy."

The baddest of the bad guys, at least to Steelers fans, agreed that an improved pass rush would help.

"When I first came here, in '97," Washington said, "[Defensive line coach John Mitchell] told me if I give them three seconds I'll be able to make a lot of plays and they'll make a lot of plays. Normally, if they can get there in about three seconds everything will work out fine."

Washington's three seconds were up in overtime of his last game, but he can't blame those mistakes on anyone else. He's been the bad guy ever since, but yesterday his practice performance was a positive sign.

"I think we got caught off-guard a little bit last year," he said. "But I think we've seen it all and for the most part we got the same group coming back, so there's no reason we shouldn't be able to go out and make more plays. I think the problem will take care of itself."

Jim Wexell

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