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Film Study: Steelers' Defense Finishes, But Still Not Completing Games

Nick DeWitt@@nickdewitt11Analyst IOctober 13, 2009

PITTSBURGH - JANUARY 11:  LaMarr Woodley #56 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on against the San Diego Chargers during their AFC Divisional Playoff Game on January 11, 2009 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

It took five weeks, but the Steelers' defense finally stepped up to finish a game, delivering three consecutive sacks to stop the Detroit Lions' last drive before it could really even begin.

It was a masterful game for linebackers. James Harrison continued his surge with a three-sack performance, also forcing a fumble.

Lamarr Woodley finally gave those on the "Woodley Watch" some moments worth remembering, contributing a sack and a half. 

Lawrence Timmons, the new face of the group, even contributed a sack of his own.

But there were, as usual, some dark clouds to rain on the parade.

The defense didn't exactly start the game.

While the season's first four weeks were defined by a Steelers defense that started strong and then fell apart, this defense seemed to start soft and emerge in the second half.

Perhaps most disturbing was the Steelers' inability to contain Daunte Culpepper in the first half, allowing him to escape pressure and help himself to long gains on the ground.

The Steelers also flashed a circa-2003 inability to get off the field on third down, allowing the Lions to convert 61 percent (11-of-18) of their third-down opportunities (including one 32 yard scramble by Culpepper on the first drive).

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The Steelers also continue to allow big plays, with three passes and one run going for more than 20 yards (and two more passes of 19 yards).  In fact, were it not for an injury to Calvin Johnson in the first half, the Lions may have been even more dangerous.

One of the biggest offenses occurred in an area where the Steelers have been utterly dominant under Mike Tomlin. 

With the Steelers up 28-13 in the fourth quarter against an offense that they had slowly begun to dominate, the Steelers defense allowed Daunte Culpepper to march the Lions' offense seven plays and 82 yards to bring them within a touchdown and two-point conversion from tying the game.

The scoring play? A 25-yard pass to backup wide receiver Dennis Northcutt.

So where is the defense after five weeks?

The short answer: about one week from finding out if one player can solve most of these problems.

Troy Polamalu should return against Cleveland after practicing for the first time this past week. What Polamalu does give the Steelers is middle-of-the-field coverage, something that was sorely lacking against San Diego and also against Detroit.

The Steelers will likely play tighter defense with Polamalu back. Once he's closer to 100 percent on the field, the exotic blitzes should help as well.

But one man probably won't solve everything.

The long answer is, of course, more complicated.

The front three (Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, and Brett Keisel) have been solid all year and are getting better as the linebackers emerge. There's not really much more this group can do.

Aaron Smith is having a quiet but spectacular season. He's getting pressure and driving blockers backwards. The opposing pocket almost always starts to collapse from his side of the field.

The linebackers have gradually improved. Lawrence Timmons is finally healthy, which makes a huge difference. His speed has helped plug up some holes and allows him to drop into coverage more effectively than the other four linebackers.

Woodley needs to build on his game against Detroit and help Harrison form that devastating duo that terrorized opponents in 2008.

Woodley seemed more comfortable and Dick LeBeau used a few blitz packages that allowed him to roam more freely. It helps that he plays behind Aaron Smith.

James Harrison has been gradually improving each week and had a trademark monster game against Detroit.

Harrison's three sacks doubled his total for the season. He also showed an increasing ability to fight off double teams, something he will need to do all year until Woodley becomes a more consistent threat.

James Farrior is again having a steady year, although he has yet to generate the pass rushing statistics he has the past few seasons.

He doesn't make mistakes, but is often being asked to cover more territory with Polamalu sidelined. He hasn't been blitzed as often, which likely contributes to his lowered totals.

The secondary is improving. William Gay is going to be a special player, but he's not a complete player yet. He still can get caught with his pants down by faster receivers.

He does blitz well and will likely be even more dangerous in this regard once Polamalu returns to the field.

Gay usually draws the No. 2 receiver, so he gets a break there. He is steady, which is what the Steelers need. It will be intriguing to see how the return of No. 43 affects his game.

Ike Taylor is having an unspectacular yet steady season. He plays extremely well against top receivers, but he needs to generate more turnovers. His hands of stone have cost the Steelers in every game. This is the one hole in his game.

Ryan Clark is hitting harder and harder and he helps cover the middle of the field. He's more dangerous with Polamalu, but has played well with Tyrone Carter. Carter has also been solid, but fans need to realize he is not Troy and does not have the same range.

The defense rose to the occasion this week instead of wearing down at the end of the game, something that will serve them well.

Now, the focus needs to be on bringing Troy Polamalu back into the game plan, organizing the skills of players like Gay and Woodley around his return, and focus on playing complete games and dominating from start to finish.

This unit has the talent. They just need to start showing the results. The Detroit game, for all the hiccups, was a step in the right direction.

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