By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Take it easy, Pittsburgh Steelers fans. There aren’t any large rips in the Steel Curtain just yet.
Sure, the Steelers defense is ranked 24th in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game, but they are the top-ranked in rushing (63.7 yards per game) and scoring (13.7 points) defense and fourth overall (299.3 total yards). Still, it’s difficult to look past 235.7 passing yards allowed per game.
“I think if you look at the way we’ve played games, we’ve been ahead in a lot of games, so teams have had to resort to throw the ball on every play,” Steelers free safety Ryan Clark said. “Teams had to do that on offense just to move the ball. So, it’s kind of skewed, but we also have the No. 1 rush defense.
“So, we’re not really concerned about that number. It think the biggest number is number of touchdown passes given up, and we haven’t given up a lot. So, I don’t think there’s anything extra that we need to do, but just improve what we already do and be more efficient in that area.”
The Steelers (5-1) have allowed just six touchdowns, including four passing, but two of those came at the end of games that were decided long before that point. The club’s secondary will be heavily tested against the pass-happy New Orleans Saints (4-3) Sunday at 8:20 p.m. in the Louisiana Superdome.
“It’s tough to play against a wide-open offense like that,” Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu said. “(Drew Brees) uses all the eligible receivers on the field, and he’s very accurate. He throws short passes as well as long passes, and that’s tough on a defense. And it helps to have a lot of talent on offense.
“(But) it’s always been about stopping the run here, and any defense we call is geared toward that. I guess if our defense gets too bad, we’ll call more pass defenses. Teams that are really patient, like Miami, can do well against us. But there really aren’t many patient offensive teams in this league.
“Miami,” Polamalu added, “was the most patient offense that we’ve played. … Miami took five yards when we gave it to them and drove on us, but it’s more important for us to play great red-zone defense. Offenses are talented, so playing great in the red zone and holding them to field goals is just fine.”
The Steelers defensive captain, inside linebacker James Farrior, believed it was just an anomaly that the club was ranked 24th in passing defense. But he acknowledged that there have been times that receivers have been wide-open downfield, and “we have to improve from that aspect.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he wasn’t overly concerned about the team’s pass defense, while New Orleans coach Sean Payton had another theory.
“When you’re able to play with a lead, teams become one-dimensional, so those statistics can fool you,” Payton said. “(Also), when you watch the Pittsburgh Steelers on video you play close attention to their run defense, and it’s as good as anyone in the league right now statistically. (And) they tackle very well.
“I think they play extremely well on the back end, (too), so whether a team is behind or choosing rather to run, your numbers can get tilted in one manner. When you look at them on film, there aren’t many weaknesses. They’re playing with as much confidence as we’ve seen, and … that’s our challenge.”
Polamalu believed the biggest thing the Steelers had to guard against was allowing big plays on defense. That’s why the Saints were so successful last season, they recorded big plays on both sides of the ball, he noted.
“We play defense to stop the run and not give up big plays,” Polamalu said. “We’ve controlled the clock, too, and that’s why we’ve been so successful. (And) when you throw the ball as often as they do, they can move the chains.
“But there also are more opportunities to force turnovers. Brees has completed about 70 percent of his passes, but he also leads the league in turnovers. So, there’s a price to pay if you throw as much as they do.”
Notes: Steelers WR Hines Ward entered the locker room wearing a Polamalu wig, much to the delight of his teammates. “I don’t know how Troy does this,” Ward said. “This is irritating.” …
DE Aaron Smith (triceps) had a positive outlook about returning in 4-6 weeks. …
Right OT Flozell Adams (ankle) and OLB LaMarr Woodley (hamstring) practiced Thursday and are expected to start against the Saints. … Right DE Brett Keisel (hamstring) did not practice, so he likely won’t play. … Ziggy Hood (left) and Nick Eason (right) were the starting DEs.