Archive for Saturday, November 1, 2003

Steelers at work on defense

Beleaguered unit struggling to pressure opposing quarterbacks

November 1, 2003


— His best player wonders where all the blitzing went. His head coach publicly questions the playcalling.

No wonder Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Tim Lewis can't sleep -- or can't always make it home to sleep in his own bed.

With the Steelers (2-5) on a four-game losing streak going into this weekend's game at Seattle (5-2), Lewis showed up for work early Tuesday morning and didn't go home until after two full work days devoted to turning around his defense.

Lewis felt it was necessary to fix the problems that allowed Marc Bulger to pass for 375 yards in the Steelers' 33-21 loss Sunday to the Rams.

"We're putting together some ideas that will put these guys in position to make plays and figure out a way to teach them how to finish them when the get there," Lewis said.

The translation: Look for a lot more blitzing Sunday in an effort to disrupt the Seahawks' Matt Hasselbeck, a quarterback the Steelers apparently don't think is on the level of a Bulger or a Steve McNair or even a Tim Couch. They all enjoyed big games during the Steelers' longest losing streak since they dropped six in a row in 1999.

Right now, the heat is on Lewis because the Steelers' trademark defensive pressure is missing.

The Steelers led the AFC in sacks the last two seasons, including 50 last season, but have only 13 after seven games. They haven't had fewer than 36 sacks since coach Bill Cowher took over in 1992 -- no doubt one of the reasons linebacker Joey Porter complained Sunday the Steelers weren't blitzing enough.

About the same time, wide receiver Plaxico Burress was saying the offensive playcalling had become too predictable. Cowher concluded there was some merit to his players' complaints and said players and coaches alike need to regain their aggressiveness.

Statistically, at least, the Steelers are better on defense than a year ago. Bulger is one of only two quarterbacks to throw for more than 200 yards against them; 12 did so last season, including five who threw for more than 300 yards and two who threw for more than 400.

But while the Steelers are No. 3 in total defense, they're No. 25 in points allowed, a byproduct of the 18 turnovers that have repeatedly given opponents good field position.

Also, to reduce the substantial passing yardage they gave up last season, the Steelers have played more of the Cover 2 schemes that opposing defenses use against them. That means safeties Brent Alexander and Mike Logan are used more in deep pass coverage than to blitz or for run support.

"We've been trying to eliminate big plays," Lewis said.

"One of the things that we'll probably need to do is use more pressure ... to make the quarterback feel a sense of urgency to get the ball off."

Right now, Lewis is feeling the pressure himself. For a man who aspires to be an NFL head coach, it's just part of the job.

"The National Football League is a pressure cooker. It comes with the territory," Lewis said. "I'm just trying to put them in position to make plays. Everything changes. This business is about adjustments. If you don't adjust, you get lost."

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