By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers unveiled a new secondary look during passing situations against the Cincinnati Bengals this past Sunday with four cornerbacks and a safety as the five defensive backs in the nickel.
That defensive package had starting cornerbacks Ike Taylor and William Gay joined by third-year corner Keenan Lewis and rookie Cortez Allen. Strong safety Troy Polamalu joined the four cornerbacks. He also has joined the club’s other rookie cornerback, Curtis Brown, as big-hitters on special teams.
“I guess Coach LeBeau just wanted a couple more guys who are more-experienced with coverage in those situations,”Allen said. “So, that’s why he added that kind of package. And anytime I can be out there with a chance to contribute, I’m happy for that, so I’m glad when we run that package.
“But special teams is always important, too, and you saw what we did against the Bengals the other day. Our special teams really got after them. We forced a fumble and recovered it. We blocked a field goal, and Antonio Brown returned a punt for a touchdown. We did a lot of damage on special teams, and me and Curtis can’t wait to get out there. It’s just another way to contribute.
“(And) coming from a school like I did, The Citadel, special teams were very important there,” Allen added. “So, I learned real early that you have to look to contribute any way you can. That’s how I got started in college, and it’s how I got started in the NFL. So, I’m no stranger to playing special teams, but me and Curtis don’t have any type of contest out there. We just want to make plays.”
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau effusively praised Allen and Brown, along with other rookies like end Cameron Heyward and linebacker Chris Carter.
“Well, we’re already into what would be their second season in college,” LeBeau said. “For them, it’s like finishing one season and turning around and starting another one again. … Coach Lake has done a great job with Cortez and Curtis, so we’re confident they can go in there and do a good job. We always thought that Cortez had good coverage ability, and we liked his size-speed ratio.
“He’s also got an innate feel for the ball, so those are the kind of guys who display things that you really can’t teach you always want to see what they end up becoming. He was injured early on, so that slowed his progress early, but he’s made constant progress since he’s been healthy. (But) we’re happy with what our young guys are doing in general on defense, and they have made great contributions on special teams on a weekly basis.”
In the one game at the Browns Stadium in 2009, the Steelers capped a five-game losing skid with a 13-9 loss during bitter-cold and windy conditions. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger remembered it not so fondly.
“I just remember that it was the coldest game I ever played in,” Roethlisberger said. “It was so windy. B.A. said we were going to run a lot because it was so windy, so I felt like all I would need to do was hand off a few times and then get back to the heated benches. But we kind of got behind and had to throw it.
“My mind-set wasn’t quite there, and I think we let up a little bit. We got over-whelmed with the weather and thinking that it was going to be an easy game, so I do remember that game very vividly. … So, you just have to be well-prepared going in, and I need to be mentally stronger than I was going into that game.”
In 2002, Steelers coach Bill Cowher believed the way to win was a high-octane passing attack with quarterback Tommy Maddox firing downfield. That led to a 10-5-1 record and 34-31 overtime loss at Tennessee when there were some dubious calls against the Steelers. The Steelers also won a wild-card game at home against the Browns, 36-33.
Maddox threw for a ton of yardage in the second half to help erase a 17-point deficit. Current Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who was on the Browns’ staff that year, provided his take on that game.
“It sticks out because we had it won, but gave it away just playing prevent against Tommy when we should’ve been blitzing the crap out of him,” Arians said. “We had a 17-point lead in the second half, and we shouldn’t have ever lost that game. Dennis (Northcut) dropped a pass, but still had a great game.
“And the game would’ve been over had he caught that ball. But the game was taken away from Foge (defensive coordinator Fazio), and it shouldn’t have ever been taken away from him (by Coach Butch Davis). He was calling a heckuva game, but we sat back there in prevent defense and Tommy picked us apart.”
In 2004 at Cleveland, Steelers linebacker Joey Porter and Browns running back William Green got ejected due to a pre-game altercation. Another linebacker, Clark Haggans, had a broken hand, so unknown, multiple-released, practice-squad player James Harrison made his debut after being signed that week.
“I saw him in training camp and said ‘who is this sawed-off dude. Man, he is stout,’ but … we needed a linebacker and picked up James,” Arians said. “He came in, and the rest is history. It’s the Wally Pipp story, you know. You get an opportunity, and you make the best of it. And he sure has done it.
“That was the breakout game for him. I just happened to be standing there during that fight, so it was crazy how that thing happened. That fight also started them getting the refs out there during warmups, and they should be. They should be there as soon as the players get out there, because things can heat up during that time and it doesn’t have to be like that.”
More From Arians
Arians was full of interesting tidbits Tuesday and added a gem about Hines Ward, noting that it was a high priority for him to get Ward 10 more receptions to reach 1,000 for his career. But for the team, not so much.
“We just talk about winning, and personal goals are set aside in favor of the team winning,” Arians said. “But for me, personally, I want to see him get it. But it’s not something we can force. It’s not like we can hand it to him, and it will count. … We wanted to get it to him in the fourth quarter when we were way ahead (against the Bengals), but that’s when they double-teamed him.
“Me and Hines have been together for so long, and it’s hugely important for me. But I’d also like to see him get his touchdown goal as well. But like I’ve said, it’s all about the team winning. So, hopefully, we can get (Ward the receiving mark) in the midst of reaching our team goals as well. So, we’ll see how that goes.”
Ward has 85 career receiving touchdowns and one rushing.
There were two key Steelers who didn’t practice Tuesday: OLB LaMarr Woodley (hamstring) and WR Emmanuel Sanders. Arians said Sanders is not ready. Woodley said he is day-to-day, but neither are likely to play against the Browns.
“I think he favored his foot because of the knee, and I think he has a little aggravation in both,” Arians said. “So, we have to wait and see how it goes, but it might be time for him to sit and rest for 11 days and get truly healthy.”
Also, LB Chris Carter (hamstring), RB Jonathan Dwyer (foot) and NT Chris Hoke (neck surgery Dec. 14) did not practice, while WR Arnaz Battle (hamstring) was limited. The good news is that OG Ramon Foster (foot) got through a full practice and said that he expects to play against the Browns Thursday night.
“We’ll see how it goes, but he’s a tough dude and it’s a low-ankle sprain and not a high one,” Arians noted. “So, we believe he’ll be all right.”
A laundry list of banged-up Steelers also had full participation: FS Ryan Clark (shoulder), WR Jerricho Cotchery (knee), ILB James Farrior (thumb), ILB Larry Foote (hamstring), OLB James Harrison (back), RB Rashard Mendenhall (back), TE Heath Miller (ankle), RB Mewelde Moore (hamstring), SS Ryan Mundy (neck), SS Troy Polamalu (knee), C Maurkice Pouncey (ankle), RB Isaac Redman (ankle), Roethlisberger (right thumb) and ILB Stevenson Sylvester (knee).