Defense a Point of Pittsburgh Concern

The Steelers had the best defense in the NFL last year, but they haven't been playing like it during the 2008 preseason, which has Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison rallying his troops.

The least of Pittsburgh's worries entering this season would seem to come from their defense. Not only did that defense lead the NFL last season in yards per play, but it's been bolstered by two young linebackers who have been playing well, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley.

Yet that defense has allowed three scoring drives in four chances through two preseason games — two touchdowns on the first two drives by Buffalo Aug. 14 in Toronto.

It may be only the preseason, but their team MVP believes the defense has to stop playing as if the games mean nothing.

"We're going out there and treating the preseason too much like the preseason," Pro Bowl outside linebacker James Harrison said. "We're going out there and thinking everything is just going to come when the regular season begins and we're just out there playing snap for snap, getting our timing and not playing up to the level we're capable of playing at. I don't feel that's OK."

His words came after the Bills drove 67 yards for one touchdown, then 90 yards for the second. Buffalo averaged 6.1 yards per carry in the first half and quarterback Trent Edwards completed nine of his 11 passes, two for touchdowns. In the first preseason game, the Eagles drove 70 yards but had to settle for a field goal.

"You go out there and have two teams run the length of (the) field on us three times out of four series, ... yeah, that's concerning," Harrison said.

Pittsburgh has been playing some vanilla defenses in the early going though. The Steelers rarely blitz and they hardly did anything but play their 3-4 base against Buffalo. Also, Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton missed the first game and played for the first time against Buffalo, while Pro Bowl strong safety Troy Polamalu remained on the physically-unable-to-perform list with a hamstring injury.

"I feel like our base defense is enough to do what we need to do," Harrison countered. "We're just not playing up to the level we're capable of right now. Something has to change."

More than likely, it will change when the Steelers play the Vikings Saturday night in Minnesota. The first teams are expected to play a full half and Polamalu could play in his first game.

"He's pretty much the catalyst of what we do," said free safety Ryan Clark. "The reason we are able to do the things we do so well is his ability to disguise and be athletic enough to get where he has to be.

"I think also from a psyche standpoint and preparation standpoint for offenses, he's a guy you have to prepare for. There are probably only a few guys in the league on defense you have to scheme for and I think Troy's one of those guys, and that helps us out a lot."

Polamalu was injured much of last season and had a down year for him, although he was selected for his fourth Pro Bowl. He missed all of the team's training-camp practices at Saint Vincent College on the PUP because he re-injured his hamstring trying to rush back.

Coach Mike Tomlin preferred to take extra precautions with Polamalu and have him ready for the regular season. He started practicing this week.

"He means a lot, especially from a secondary standpoint," cornerback Bryant McFadden said. "When you play opposing offenses, they really have to account for him and take note where he is at all times. He does so many positive things out there for the secondary and the defense, just the chemistry he brings to the table. He makes so many plays from a coverage standpoint, blitzing and turnovers."


  • Coach Mike Tomlin said sloppy tackling against Buffalo was a reason the Steelers did not use many, if any, of its substitution packages on defense, staying in the 3-4 much of the way.

    "When you're not tackling, you got to play basic football," Tomlin said.

  • WR Santonio Holmes finally will get a chance to return punts this week. Mike Tomlin had resisted him doing so through training camp after not using him in that role last season. Now, he's comparing him to a Hall of Famer.

    "I grew up in a generation in Virginia when Darrell Green was a situational return man of the Redskins," Tomlin said. "When he went back there, it kind of electrified the crowd. Hopefully, we have a vision of maybe having that with Santonio."

  • Steelers chairman Dan Rooney and his four brothers have been summoned to New York City to meet with commissioner Roger Goodell Aug. 26 at NFL headquarters. The five each own 16 percent of the franchise and are trying to find a way to abide by NFL rules regarding ownership of their racetrack-casinos, as well as the Steelers.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "You got to show something in the preseason. That's why we play the damn games." — LB James Harrison, upset with his defense's play through two games.

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