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Insider Only Steelers Insider: Recent trend continues for once vaunted defense

It couldn’t be happening again.
Not for a fifth straight game.
Not this week. Not against Detroit.
The Steelers couldn’t possibly be letting yet another hard earned fourth quarter lead evaporate, right
Well, there they were. The hapless Lions. Winners of one game in their last twenty-one tries. Sitting 1st and 10 on the Steeler 21 yard line trailing 28-20 at the 2:00 warning. They were now within striking distance of tying this game against the defending Super Bowl champions. It was a contest they trailed by 15 points less than six minutes before.
But that once vaunted Steeler defense continued its alarming recent trend of allowing massive fourth quarter comebacks to teams that appeared to be beaten in the first half. Even bad ones. Like the Lions. With a downtrodden QB like Daunte Culpepper at the helm.
Normally, if you said to a football fan that the Steelers were in possession of a 15 point lead against Detroit in the fourth quarter, that fan would tell you: “Put on the 4:15 game. This one is over.”
But on this day at Ford Field even the most ardent Steeler fan was feeling less than comfortable. In the words of Mike Lange, “We’d seen this fish before.”
Actually, so far this year we saw this same fish against the Bears (blew a 14-7 lead in the 4th quarter before losing 17-14), Bengals (lead 20-9 in the fourth before falling 23-20), and Chargers (gave up 21 fourth quarter points but still managed to win 38-28).

This fish has made more appearances on big screen TV’s than Jaws. In 2009, the Steelers have been outscored 55-13 in the fourth quarter.
On this Sunday Culpepper moved the Lions 82 yards on seven plays in under three minutes. His 25-yard touchdown pass to Dennis Northcutt pulled Detroit within eight points and with 5:03 remaining.
To make matters worse, much as we saw in most of those other games that got tight late, the normally effective Steeler offense decided now would be a good time to come up with a three-&-out.
With 3:17 left, Culpepper got the ball back and marched his troops 42 yards before the 2:00 warning against a not so “steely” curtain of a Pittsburgh defense.
Culpepper to Derrick Williams for 18.
Culpepper to Derrick Williams for 19
A sack by LaMarr Woodley and an incompletion set up a 3rd-&-19. This is where the drive ends, right? Nope. Culpepper hit Dennis Northcutt for 21 yards on a play where Northcutt had the entire right side of the field open for himself.
That’s when the 2:00 warning hit. And luckily this time, that’s when the Steelers woke up. It can’t be ignored that the Steeler 4th quarter woes on defense have coincided with the absence of Troy Polamalu.
So many times last year, Polamalu did something to reverse momentum of a drive. He’d pick off a pass. Or he’d bat one down. Or he’d clip a runner on a crossing pattern so that receiver only got five yards instead of 15.
With Polamalu hurt all year, and the pass rush struggling to get key sacks too, Pittsburgh’s defense has been unable to break up the rhythm of an opposing offense once it got going.
But this time somebody did just that. It was William Gay. The third year corner back exploded on a corner blitz on 1st & 10 from the 21. He darted through a gaping hole in the Detroit offensive line. Culpepper was looking right at #22 but couldn’t avoid him. The QB stepped up into a collapsing pocket to avoid Gay and right into Woodley’s waiting arms. Sack. Six yard loss.
On 2nd and 16, the Steelers ran exactly the same defensive play. Gay was unblocked once more. And this time he got credit for the sack all by himself. Minus five more yards.
”Right play calls. And everybody did their jobs,” said Woodley.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau changed things up on 3rd and 21. But he still brought pressure. Lawrence Timmons dropped Culpepper for a 13 yard loss this time.
“You gotta take your hat off to Coach LeBeau. He dissected that offense. He called some wonderful play calls,” gushed Gay. “And we executed it. And we came out on the right end of it.”
When a 4th and 34 pass was broken up by Ike Taylor, all the Steelers had to do was kneel out the clock. And hey, not even this defense could make that interesting. So Pittsburgh won 28-20.
But most of the post-game chatter in the locker-room was about the defense needing to bail itself out from another leaky fourth quarter. This despite recent demands from head coach Mike Tomlin to close out opponents when his squad had a late lead.
“Closing games means you get the ‘W.’ So obviously we closed it out,” said Gay.
Hmmmmm, that’s not so obvious, Willy. Yes, you got the win. But I’m pretty sure what Coach Tomlin meant by that was something more along the lines of not even giving life to a lifeless team…. like, for instance, the Lions.
Woodley seemed to have a better grasp on the situation, “As a defense we allowed them to put the points on the board. We allowed them to get out of third down situations. That allowed their drives to stay alive. We need to get off the field on third downs, and then it wouldn’t come down to situations like this.”
One thing that may help is getting more aggressive on defense earlier in the fourth quarter. When the Steelers build up these leads, it seems that they have a tendency to lay back and let other teams dictate the flow of the fourth quarter.
LeBeau’s three consecutive blitz calls for Gay (twice) and Timmons (once) were a departure from what we are used to seeing late in games from the Black and Gold.
Defensive captain James Farrior disagreed though, “We’ve been running ‘em. They just haven’t always been getting there.”
Perhaps. But Woodley admitted the Steelers were hesitant to bring blitzes in the second half because Detroit tried a bunch of screens in the first half. Maybe the Steelers should do what they do best and let the other team react to them on offense instead of the other way around.
Just a thought.
A true indication of how bad the Steeler defense plays with a lead could come next week. They play the Browns. Yes, the same Browns who managed all of 22 passing yards on two completions Sunday against Buffalo.
So you can be pretty sure the Steelers will have a lead in the fourth quarter. And it’ll probably be a large lead. But don’t put the 4:15 game on too quickly. The game will probably just start to get interesting at that point.

About The Author

Tim Benz

TIOPS Columnist

Tim Benz can be heard on the Pittsburgh Steelers Radio Network post game show and M-F 10-1 on TribLive Radio

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