Steelers brace for passing onslaught

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> The record book says the Steelers had the third-worst performance against the pass in NFL playoff history. It also says that the two games ranked higher were both overtime games. <br><br> So a case can be made that no team has ever played worse pass defense in the playoffs than last year's Steelers when Cleveland Browns back-up quarterback Kelly Holcomb carved them up for 429 yards.

Of course, the Steelers rallied from a 24-7 third-quarter deficit to win, 36-33. But before we examine the improvements the Steelers have made in their pass defense, we must examine what went wrong last January 5.
  • Free safety Brent Alexander: "I think some of the errors we had might have been due to the playoff atmosphere. We had a few mistakes early in the game that put us down. Some of those things subsided as the game went along. Later in the game, the same plays weren't working. There had to be a reason, but the overall thing is once we settled down and stopped making the mental errors - blowing coverage's and not being where we're supposed to be - things seemed to pick up for us." 

  • Dime back Mike Logan: "I think initially everyone was kind of surprised they were having so much success against us and then after we got a couple scores, a turnover kind of turned the tide for us. The surprise was over and then we were able to regroup and finish the game up."

  • Coach Bill Cowher: "Kelly came in and made a couple big plays that set the tone. He threw the ball down the field. We had a young player in Hank Poteat and (Holcomb) did a good job of finding and searching him out."

So in summation, the Steelers made some understandable mistakes under the bright lights, were surprised that Holcomb could do such a good job running the spread offense, and were so undermanned they used Poteat - who has since been cut - as the nickel back due to an injury that kept starting cornerback Chad Scott out of the game.

The Steelers survived, and in fact now rank second in the NFL in pass defense. Promoting Logan to a starting position has helped. So has the new nickel package that allows more flexibility on the mid-range passing downs. Anything else?

"The biggest key this year has been the pass rush up front," said Alexander. "We're getting a consistent pass rush out of a four-man rush. We've even had good pressure out of a three-man rush. Those are the things, the collective things throughout the defense, that have improved. "All of us know that we play a part in every single snap on the field. If it's a run play, we in the secondary don't just let it happen. We all have to make plays, just like in the pass game the guys up front can't take off. I think collectively we're all playing together. We all know we all play a part in every single snap. That's just made the defense better."

While the Steelers' pass defense has improved statistically, the Browns' pass offense has regressed. The Browns are averaging 261.3 yards per game, with 191.9 of those yards coming through the air. Last season, the Browns averaged 314.2 and 213.3, respectively.

"I was a little surprised about that, but at some point in the year they're going to start clicking," said Logan. "We don't want to have that against us."

Holcomb, however, will miss the game with ankle and leg injuries. He'll be replaced by Tim Couch, who's led the Browns to their only two wins over the Steelers since the rivalry resumed in 1999.

"Holcomb my have a little stronger arm, gets rid of the ball a little quicker," Logan said. "Couch is a former No. 1 pick, has been a starter and I'm pretty sure he's ready to take advantage of this opportunity. I don't expect them to come back and do anything different than what they did last year."

Couch will make his second start of the season Sunday night. Last week, he left the field to a cacophony of boos after throwing an interception to end the Browns' last threat. Couch completed 23 of 36 passes for 280 yards, two touchdowns and the pick that ended the 21-14 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

In two regular-season games against the Steelers last season, Couch threw two touchdown passes and was intercepted four times for a cumulative passer rating of 57.5.

"We're more prepared as far as knowing what we're going to see in the game," said Alexander. "But the biggest asset we have is that we're going in pretty healthy, especially in the secondary. So we're healthy, we're playing a lot better, we're a lot more confident and the communication is way better. Everyone has a better understanding of what we're doing."

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