Notebook: Secondary rises above expectations

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> A rebuilt secondary was supposed to be the weak link for the Steelers this season - at least early this season.<br><br> Instead, the pass defense has been a team strength.

With three new starters since last opening day, and a rookie nickel back, the Steelers' pass defense after four games ranks 5th in the league. The other units rank 7th (offensive rushing), 11th (defensive rushing) and 28th (offensive passing).

"I just think we're hungry," said cornerback Deshea Townsend. "It's a new feeling. Everybody's more excited. It's their first opportunity to get out there and play. That's what's really helping us out right now."

But, as Townsend pointed out: "Realistically, we haven't faced many top offenses."

So that explains the Steelers' skewed pass defense stats, right?

Well, maybe not.

The Steelers have faced Rich Gannon, Kyle Boller, A.J. Feeley and Carson Palmer in their four games. The group has compiled a collective passer rating of 66.6 this season. But they had a passer rating of 58.2 against the Steelers and 70.1 against the rest of the teams they've played.

In fact, the Steelers' pass defense is more impressive when measured by the more detailed passer rating. The Steelers are second in the NFL (58.2) in defensive passer rating after finishing 23rd a year ago (82.4).

The Steelers have also improved their defensive pass completion percentage. Last year, the Steelers allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 60.7 percent of their passes to rank 23rd. This year, opposing passers are completing 52.9 percent and the Steelers are second in the NFL.

Troy Polamalu brought up another interesting statistic when asked how the secondary was playing.

"Well, we're 3-1 right now," he said.

When pressed, the quiet second-year strong safety said: "We're excited that we're meshing together and have had some success this season. But we're also excited there's still room for improvement."

OPEN FIELD

Hines Ward, with his 28 receptions, is on pace to match his team record of 112 catches set in 2002. It's obvious his production is opening up the field for the guy on the other side, Plaxico Burress.

Through four games, Burress has only nine receptions (41st in AFC), but he's averaging 19.1 yards per catch to rank eighth in the conference. The qualifying standard is 1.875 catches per game, or 7.5 catches for players who've participated in four games.

The big catches have improved Burress' career average to 15.5 yards per catch, or a tenth of a yard shy of the average posted by that Steelers star of the late 1940s and 1950s, Elbie Nickel.

In spite of a breakout 69-yard game against a Bengals secondary hampered by the losses of such notables as Kevin Kaesviharn, Kim Herring and Rogers Beckett, Burress didn't quite jump into the Buddy Dial range of 20.6 yards per catch, but he's not too far off the averages of Hall of Famers John Stallworth and Lynn Swann. The two averaged 16.2 yards per catch. Stallworth's average was maintained over 14 seasons.

Louis Lipps averaged 16.8 and Yancey Thigpen averaged 16.4 yards per catch in their Steelers careers.

In comparing players with similar career spans as Burress (2000-04), Ron Shanklin (1970-75) and Roy Jefferson (1965-69) averaged 18.4 yards per catch, and another Michigan State product, Gary Ballman (1962-66), averaged 19.1 yards per catch. All three players were either traded or released by the Steelers.

INJURY REPORT

Duce Staley (toe) will be a game-day decision, and the only one for the Steelers, who'll miss quarterback Tommy Maddox (elbow) and linebacker Kendrell Bell (groin) until the bye week. For the Browns, right tackle Ryan Tucker (quadriceps) and defensive tackle Gerard Warren (pectoral) will miss their third games of the season. Tucker has been replaced by Joaquin Gonzalez and Warren has been replaced by Michael Myers.

QUOTABLE

Defensive end Aaron Smith on the Steelers' spirited practices this week: "We're 3-1 and everybody here is feeling a little bit better about themselves than they were a couple weeks ago. It was nice we pulled out the win. We came from behind to win and we hadn't done that so I think that gave us an extra kick."

Polamalu on whether the blitz package has been in full use: "Not really. We're not really using everything. As far as our core defense we've used everything that's been installed, but there are a lot of blitzes that I wish we could use that involve myself."

NOTABLE

Today's game will be the 103rd regular-season meeting between the teams. The Browns lead the series 55-47.

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