Disappearing defense

Conventional wisdom says the offensive line and special teams are to blame for many of the Steelers' problems. A bigger concern has to be the defense, which has played a major part in all five losses.

The 2007 Pittsburgh Steelers are 9-5, the same record the 2005 team had 15 weeks into their Super Bowl season. And that, folks, is where the similarities end. Two years ago, Pittsburgh was 7-5 and needed to win out to earn a postseason birth. They did just that, made the playoffs as a sixth seed, and proceeded to win three road games on the way to Detroit (home of Jerome Bettis, by the way). The '07 version was 9-3 two weeks ago, widely thought to be one of the few teams capable of challenging the great and powerful Patriots, and if nothing else, would thrive in weather perfectly suited for "Steelers Football." Or so the conventional wisdom went. Instead, Pittsburgh was blown out of Foxboro, and laid an egg against the Jaguars last Sunday. And here we are, staring 9-5 in the face. Not only does Pittsburgh have to figure out how to win the final two regular-season games -- including Thursday's contest against the three-win Rams -- but there's also the little issue of the suddenly potent Cleveland Browns winning the AFC North if the Steelers' slide continues.

Perspective is always important when you're in the middle of it. Four months ago, I would've gladly accepted a 9-5 record with two games to go, and first place in the division. Now, though, every loss feels like I'm watching the 2003 season on a loop. Even if you're willing to recognize that the Steelers have met some loosely defined preseason expectations, it doesn't make what we saw last Sunday any easier to stomach.

Same holds for the Cardinals, Broncos and Jets. The Patriots loss I can live with; they're the best team in football, by a humongous margin, and the Steelers only played for 30 minutes before Anthony Smith took matters into his own hands. Half-assed football might work against the Bengals (it sure had Smith convinced of as much), but that's about it. All the other losses all came down to execution.

I'll willingly admit that Jacksonville is one the top-5 teams in the NFL, and that they came into Heinz Field and punched the Steelers in the mouth. And while the Steelers were scrambling around on the floor looking for their teeth, the Jags kicked them in the gut a few times for good measure. Remember when Pittsburgh used to be doing the punching and kicking? Good times.

For most of the season, the breakdowns could usually be attributed to -- say it with me -- the offensive line and special teams. Marvel Smith spent Sunday afternoon getting spun like a dreidel before a balky back finally forced him out of the game. By then, Ben Roethlisberger had taken five sacks, none of the "in the grasp" variety, and I am amazed he didn't need assistance from the John Deere ambu-cart to make his way to the locker room. Just imagine if Marcus Stroud and Reggie Hayward had been out there.

Surprisingly, the special teams wasn't a problem against the Jaguars, but it certainly played a huge role in the Cardinals and Jets losses.

(Random tangent: I don't know much about Xs and Os so I'll defer to those who do, but here's a question for the peanut gallery: after Joshua Cribbs torched the Steelers' special teams back in Week 10, I remember him talking during the post-game press conference about how Cleveland's return team did a fantastic job of creating running lanes [this obviously doesn't refer to the 100-yard runback … that was all thanks to Pittsburgh doing a fantastic job of creating running lanes]. Specifically, the wedge -- those three fat guys just in front of the kick returner -- was exactly 13 yards in front of Cribbs when he caught the kickoff. As he hit fifth gear, the wedge had just engaged the Steelers' coverage team, allowing Cribbs to pick a hole and go. I'm reminded of Cribbs' words every time I watch Pittsburgh receive a kickoff. Without fail, Allen Rossum will catch the ball with the wedge anywhere from five to seven yards in front of him. Save the 49ers game -- which looks more and more like an anomaly every week -- the results have been predictable. So here's my question: did Bob Ligashesky spend so much time with the football sticks and Hacky Sacks that he forgot to go over the basics? I'd like to think not, but this year's unit doesn't look all that different from the ones that were stumbling up and down the field in recent seasons.)

The biggest worry in all five losses -- and one I didn't see coming -- has been the defense. For as much as we like to complain about the sorry state of the pass blockers, or the inconsistencies in the running game and with the wide receivers, or even the never-ending stream of injuries to key players, it's been the usually solid-as-a-rock defense that has let the 2007 Steelers down. Every loss, from the Cards to the Jags, has one recurring theme: Dick LeBeau's troops couldn't get off the field. How did we get to this point? The steadiest unit on the team now can't be counted on to keep a Florida team from pounding the ball on the ground in freezing conditions on a sloppy field. Come again?

In 2005, Pittsburgh's defense ranked second, according to Football Outsiders; this season, they rank first. Hold the virtual high-fivin' because here's the difference: that Super Bowl defense was one of the most consistent units in the league. Put differently, there wasn't much variability in productivity from one game to the next. If the Steelers stifled opponents' running games in Week 5, they were still doing it, without any drop-off, in Week 17. Same for the pass defense. This year, Pittsburgh's defense is the seventh-most inconsistent team in the NFL behind the Eagles, Chiefs, Cardinals, and Broncos, among others. Notice anything about those teams? They all have losing records. Granted, none of these defenses compare to Pittsburgh's when it's playing well, but that's the point: who knows when that'll be.

Part of it can be blamed on injuries, I guess, but the Steelers didn't miss a beat when Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu went down until the Patriots game. And it managed when Aaron Smith missed time earlier this season with a knee injury. Maybe offensive coordinators are finally catching up to LeBeau (doubt it), or perhaps the team struggles to make in-game adjustments (could be), or, as Tomlin pointed out during his Tuesday press conference, maybe guys are just missing assignments. You can have the best scheme in the world, but if players don't do their jobs, it won't much matter. For as brilliant as the media would have us believe Bill Belichick is, he didn't exactly light it up in Cleveland back in the mid-90s.

I wrote after last week's game that Tomlin's true test would come in preparing his team after a big loss. So far, so bad. The Steelers have sprung a leak at the worst possible time -- amazingly, it's in the defense -- and if things go badly Thursday, we could have a Titanic situation on our hands. Forget the playoffs, forget the division, how about Pittsburgh focuses on beating the three-win Rams. We'll go from there.

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