The difference is defense

Some folks are yelling for the Bus. Others are calling for the head of Tommy Maddox. The brains of the fan base have boiled it down to the offensive line. 6 weeks into the 2003 season just about everyone has forgotten how the Pittsburgh Steelers win games.

Whether under Chuck Noll or Bill Cowher, the Pittsburgh Steelers have won with defense. Sometimes they run the ball well and other times they hit the big pass play. But the bread and butter in Pittsburgh is/was the Steel Curtain. As the defense goes, so goes the fate of the Steelers.

While just about any fan of the Steelers understands the "defense first" philosophy, the quarterback is usually first in line for the blame when Pittsburgh loses. Stranger still, I'm here to tell you that the scapegoat for the loss to the Denver Broncos and the miserable 2 and 4 start is the defense.

"The hard thing about playing against cover-2 is when you get down and you're trying to catch up, but as long as you're in the game that's the secret," said Maddox in response to a question about beating this defensive scheme. "I mean, you look at our last drive, they went single high a couple times and we were able to hit big plays, but other than that they were in cover-2 and we were taking the underneath guys and moving the ball down the field."

Certainly, interceptions that go the other way for touchdowns play a role in digging the ditch that makes the cover-2 so hard to beat. But so does the worst red-zone defense in the NFL.

Bill Cowher has already taken issue with the turnover problem and has been clear that he thinks that being on the plus side is a key to victory. "Turnover/takeaway is something I have said from the beginning that is something that we have to do a better job of and come out on the plus side of it. That has been a number that is correlated with wins and losses."

Last Sunday, the Steelers won the turnover battle but still lost the game. Cowher finally reined in Maddox, who did not throw an interception. However, the interception-prone quarterback has, as usual, been unfairly made the scapegoat. The struggles on offense have overshadowed the shortcomings on defense.

"I look at, defensively, third down has been good which was an issue coming in and we are playing good run defense," said Cowher about the defensive struggles and key statistical indicators. "I look at that and to me we have to do a much better job on defense in the red zone than we have to do on offense. We need to hold people to field goals."

Break it down any way you want. Cowher, as well as the fans, cannot count on the defense to win a game. The offense cut down on the big turnovers in Denver, but in the end it was the defense that came up short.

Holding backup QB Steve Beuerlein and the Broncos to 17 points is nothing to hang your hat on, let alone go off the deep end about the offensive struggles. The Steelers offense found a way to tie the game up and the coaching staff then asked the defense to make it stand up.

The Steelers defense could not deliver.

In 2001, a year in which the Steelers were 5-1 at this point during the season, Kordell Stewart and the offense did not exactly start out firing on all cylinders. Pittsburgh as a team, including whatever the defense might have contributed to the scoring side of the ledger, failed to post more than 20 points in any game until the 6th game against the Tennessee Titans. In four straight early games the Steelers defense made an anemic offensive attack stand up. That is, field goals counted for something.

In 2003, field goals don't count for much any more.

"We're seeing a lot of seam, a lot of cover 2 down there," answered Maddox when asked about the defensive schemes the Steelers are facing inside the red-zone. "They're trying to get outside of Hines and Plax and take the fade away and kind of just keep everything else underneath. It's frustrating."

Why not concede three points when you know your own offense will surely get seven, given the same opportunity?

Perhaps references to the Steelers past is unconvincing, a past when a coach could ask his defense to win a game. Looking around the AFC North and the NFL reveals the potency of an excellent defense.

The fact of the matter is that the Steelers offense could bail out the defense, at least on a few occasions, during the 2002 season. The opposition has decided to sell out and dare Pittsburgh's defense to beat them. 31 of 33 passing attempts appears to bear that out.

So does the recent success of the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Ravens. The Browns have one of the worst offenses in the NFL, not that you would know it watching them play during Week 5 in Pittsburgh. The Browns are averaging about 15 points per game with one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, which just got worse with injuries to two starters. Yet here the Browns stand, headed by the resurrected career of Dave Campo, on the verge of challenging for the AFC North championship.

Are you still not convinced? If you think the Steelers have problems at quarterback you should visit Baltimore and the struggling rookie Kyle Boller. He's thrown just 2 TD passes against 6 interceptions in 5 games. The Ravens currently sit in first place in the AFC North. Why?

Sure, RB Jamal Lewis is one of the best in the game right now, but the Ravens can afford to play for 3. Their defense has been great while the special teams continue to provide some scoring. In short, the Ravens have found other ways to win games than depending on the quarterback.

Remember that the next time you call for the head of Tommy Maddox or cry for Charlie Batch. In Pittsburgh, the defense is supposed to win games. Can a bye week solve that glaring problem? The desperation on the offensive line is simply misplaced.

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