Defensive and struggles are two words that normally aren’t associated with each other when it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers. But when it comes to the numbers, the Steelers defense is one of the best in the league.
Pittsburgh ranks second in the NFL in yards, allowing only 277.3 yards per game, and is the best in the league against the pass.
Even the much-maligned run defense ranks fifth in the league and has shown signs of getting better in recent weeks.
So where are the struggles?
The Steelers defense is only 12th in the league in points allowed at 22.0 points per game and they are tied with the Buffalo Bills for the worst third-down defense in the league.
Besides allowing more than a touchdown more per game than last season, the Steelers defense has struggled holding fourth quarter leads, blowing leads against the Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans.
Why has the defense suffered such a drop-off? There have been two major reasons: injuries and struggling starters.
Two of Pittsburgh’s best defenders—Troy Polamalu and James Harrison—have only played in five games, and another top defender—LaMarr Woodley—has missed action as well. Without these three stars roaming the defensive side of the ball, the Steelers have failed to generate a consistent pass rush and force turnovers.
The team only has 11 sacks on the season and the leader in sacks—Jason Worilds—barely sees the field.
Even when they are on the field, Woodley and Harrison have not been productive, combining for only three sacks in a combined eight games played.
Harrison clearly is slowing down as injuries have got the best of him. He is no longer a dominant outside rusher and has not been able to generate much pressure.
Besides the lack of a pass rush from the outside linebackers, Polamalu’s absence means that there are no true playmakers in the secondary.
As a team, the Steelers only have three interceptions and only four fumble recoveries. That is not good enough.
The only way that these numbers will increase is if all three stars can return to health and thus raise their level of play.
Which has been a bigger issue for the Steelers' defense?
Besides the injuries, many of the defensive starters either are not very talented or have not played exceptionally well.
Nobody will ever mistake Larry Foote for a top linebacker—or even an average linebacker at this point—but he is starting for the Steelers.
Keenan Lewis is in his first year as a full-time starter and is experiencing growing pains while Casey Hampton is beyond his time as a starter yet is in there at nose tackle.
Then there are some underachieving stars including Lawrence Timmons—who has had only one truly outstanding game this year—and Ike Taylor.
Taylor has been playing some of the worst football of his career as he is the most penalized member of the team and has given up big play after big play.
With injuries to three important starters and lackluster play from four others, there is not much going on for the Steelers’ defense. Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel have been consistent on the defensive line, though some could argue that they have been a disappointment. That makes Ryan Clark as the only defender who has played well each week and he isn’t a dynamic player, but just gets his job done well.
The good news for the defense is that things appeared as though they began to turn around against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Lewis had one of, if not the best game of his career against the Bengals while Taylor looked to be in old form matching up against A.J. Green. The solid cornerback play was aided by a decent pass rush, but just overall better play by the linebackers.
Foote is a smart, but limited player, and he can hold the middle of the defense for Timmons to run around and make plays.
Dick LeBeau needs to use Timmons like he did against the Philadelphia Eagles earlier this season.
In that game, Timmons was dominant and making plays all over the field. This is particularly important given the lack of playmakers on defense right now.
Giving Cameron Heyward some time to rest Keisel will benefit the defense as well, but not as much as starting Steve McLendon ahead of Hampton. Hampton was getting pushed off the ball by a third-string center last week and does not maintain the point of attack as he did in his prime. Not only can McLendon hold his ground, but he can penetrate the line on passing downs. Pittsburgh could really use an extra man who can get to the quarterback.
Now as the Steelers get to the midpoint of the season, it is time for them to find their defensive stride and make the necessary adjustments to get back to trusting the defense that has led them to so many wins over the past decade.
The potential is there and it is time that they realize it.