A Safe Harbor

The Steelers' secondary needs to start making opposing QBs pay for throwing deep. Also, Dick LeBeau defends James Farrior, and Anthony Madison smiles and keeps his mouth shut.

PITTSBURGH – In one practice series this week, rookies Joe Burnett and Keenan Lewis did something rare for Steelers cornerbacks this season: They made plays.

Lining up on the scout team, Burnett intercepted a pass intended for a tight end who wasn't looking. Burnett was, and he returned the interception for an easy touchdown. Two plays later, Lewis blitzed off the edge and leaped to bat Ben Roethlisberger's pass to the ground.

In a season in which cornerbacks Ike Taylor, William Gay and Deshea Townsend have made so few plays, might we expect one of the rookies to reach the field soon?

"I feel good about our young players," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "But I feel real good about our veteran corners, too.

"You look at the numbers. It's easy to pick out a play here and a play there, but I think you have to go on the overall numbers. Other than the number of interceptions, our guys are playing competitively now."

Well, the "number of interceptions" isn't really a number; it's zero. The Steelers and the St. Louis Rams are the only teams in the league whose cornerbacks – starting or otherwise – have not intercepted a pass.

While the Steelers do have the league's No. 3 overall defense, their pass defense ranks 13th, and much of that low ranking has to do with the high number of big plays allowed.

In 2008, the Steelers allowed only 9.5 yards per completion, but this year they're allowing 11.1 yards per catch. In the last two games allowed nine catches of 20 or more yards, including catches of 47, 61, 54 and 44.

"We're giving up too many of them. There's no question about it," LeBeau said. "What I would like to see us do is intercept. You've got to make people pay if they're going to go downtown, because they're going to get some of those in there. We're not picking those off, so our emphasis is making them pay a little more when they want to go deep on us. We definitely have to cut those plays off."

TALE OF TWO ILBs

Lawrence Timmons sat on the bench for most of the second quarter Sunday, but LeBeau said it was not a benching, but a chance for him to keep his injured ankle fresh, as well as a chance for Keyaron Fox to play.

"It's more a situation of trying to get Lawrence back to 100 percent, which he's pretty close to," LeBeau said.

In the second half, Timmons sacked Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco twice and forced a fumble the second time to set the offense up for the go-ahead touchdown.

Timmons' partner inside, James Farrior, also sacked Flacco and forced a fumble, but that was after his man, Ray Rice, had caught a fourth-down pass and gained 44 yards to set up the game-tying field goal.

Because of Rice's big play, and the early-season fourth-down completion to Cincinnati back Brian Leonard, some are wondering whether the skills of the 34-year-old Farrior are beginning to diminish. LeBeau fiercely defended his captain.

"Well, James Farrior won the Dallas game for us a couple years ago," LeBeau started. "He has played both Super Bowl games with serious injuries that a lot of people wouldn't have gone out there with. We lead the league in rushing defense. I think we're third in total defense. Our middle linebacker plays damn good football. I wished that I would've put him in a little better defense, to be honest with you, on both of those plays, but over the course of this season and recent seasons, James has been successful nine out of 10 times on those type of plays.

"I don't think it's fair to say ‘this play' or ‘that play.' You have to look at the whole picture. And the defense's production, particularly from the linebacker position, has been very, very good."

MADISON BACK IN BLACK, GOLD

When things were going well for Anthony Madison last season, he praised the kick coverage ace before him, Chidi Iwuoma, for teaching him what he knows.

"It's not something rookies can just step out there and do," Madison said last season.

The Steelers had to learn the hard way. Again.

Just as they did with the 28-year-old Iwuoma the year after he captained the special teams in a Super Bowl victory, the Steelers cut the 28-year-old Madison the training camp after he led the team in special-teams tackles during another Super Bowl run.

And, just as the Steelers did with Iwuoma on Dec. 4 in 2006, they called Madison back on Dec. 2 this year to restore some pride to a unit that had gone from first in the league to 31st in one year.

Madison watched it all happen while he was a part of the Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts.

"I always paid attention. These are my brothers," Madison said. "You watch and you spectate and you watch it from a fan's perspective."

What was his reaction to the Steelers allowing four kickoff returns for touchdowns?

"I'm not going into all of that," he said. "But it's one of those situations where you, you know, you just look and you wonder."

A source in the Steelers' personnel department said that Madison has not lost his skills, that he was cut simply because of a numbers problem coming out of training camp. Madison said the same numbers problems surfaced in both Cleveland and Indianapolis.

"It's one of those situations where I'm glad to be back," said Madison, who'll play gunner on the punt team and replace Stefan Logan as the "L2" on the kickoff team. "I'm just ready to get to my regular role and try to help this team win."

INJURY UPDATE

Troy Polamalu (knee) and Travis Kirschke (calf) missed another practice. Polamalu won't play Sunday, and it's unlikely that Kirschke will. ... Chris Kemoeatu (knee) was listed as questionable on Tuesday, but has practiced full-time both days this week and expects to play Sunday.


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