Steelers' pass defense reaching goal

<b>PITTSBURGH – </b> Last spring the Steelers said they wanted their defense to be more like the defense of the champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and that's exactly how the first three weeks of the season have unfolded. <br><br> The Steelers are second in the NFL in pass defense and pass yardage per attempt. In both categories, they trail the Bucs, who use plenty of cover-two and nickel alignments, sometimes at the expense of their run defense.

Against the run, the Steelers are allowing 4.1 yards per carry, 18th in the league, while the Bucs are allowing 4.3 yards per carry to rank 21st.

Overall, the Bucs and Steelers are first and third, respectively, in NFL defense and have 2-1 records.

"When you watched the Super Bowl and you watched the games Tampa played in all year," Steelers defensive coordinator Tim Lewis said last spring, "it didn't really matter what they saw. They were able to play nickel versus any set. ... So nickel has to be a very versatile set for us."

And it has. The Steelers have used it nearly as often as their base defense, and will likely call on it again Sunday to stop the Tennessee Titans and AFC passing leader Steve McNair.

Steelers Coach Bill Cowher initially said it's too early to draw any conclusions about his team's apparent success against the pass, but conceded improvements have been made over the first three games of last season.

In the first three games last season, the Steelers allowed an average of 257 passing yards per game and 5.6 yards per attempt. They allowed opposing quarterbacks a passer rating of 76.6.

This year, the Steelers are allowing an average of 145 passing yards per game, 4.9 yards per attempt and have allowed a passer rating of 65.2.

"If you were to compare it to this point last year then, yeah, I would say it's dramatically improved," Cowher said. "I just think that we're playing together. We do have a little bit more flexibility this year with some of the defenses that we have. We really never used the nickel package, which now we can use, even though last week it was probably more extensive dime, just because of the people they had on the field. I think it's just us being coordinated and trying to eliminate the big things. Last week there were only two plays over 14 yards. That was big."

Even when Cowher relied predominantly on a three-deep zone, his first priority was not allowing big plays. But now the Steelers are using more cover-two defenses, which require both safeties to stay deep while the cornerbacks press receivers at the line of scrimmage.

"If we can make teams methodically move the ball," Cowher said, "somewhere we'll get someone tipping the ball and people going to the football and we'll make a play. I guess that's the way we've tried to approach it this year and to this point it's been somewhat effective."

Cowher, in his weekly press conference, also said the development of linebacker James Farrior has helped the pass defense. Cowher wouldn't say whether Farrior would remain the lone linebacker in the dime package, since Joey Porter is entering the second game of his comeback from a gunshot wound.

"I don't know how it's going to unfold. Maybe every week it'll be different, just like with the running backs," Cowher said. "James has played very well. Joey did a good job rushing. He still has that position. He'll get back and work it some this week, but we'll need them all."

As for the running backs, Cowher said Zereoue will remain the starter on Sunday. Last week, he gained 69 yards on 16 carries and Jerome Bettis came off the bench to gain 59 yards on 16 carries.

As for when or whether Bettis enters Sunday's game, Cowher didn't have an answer.

"I don't know. No one will know. It'll just kind of be a situational thing," Cowher said. "I really don't know and I don't want to say anything that could mislead anybody, players included. I think that's the only way I can be honest with them. You'd like to think it's going to work out that they'll get 16 and 17 (carries) every week, but it will not. It will not end up being that way and they've got to understand that. There's no really set criteria as to how it will unfold. We've just got to take it week to week."

By Jim Wexell
SteelCitySports.com

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