Monday, October 17, 2011

It's too soon to believe in pass defense

Monday, October 17, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 16: Jason Hill(notes) #83 of the Jacksonville Jaguars catches a touchdown pass in front of Ike Taylor(notes) #24 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the game on October 16, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Seeing is believing, goes the oversimplification, but at the highest levels of professional football, particularly in the way the Steelers approach their pass defense, believing isn't seeing.

Not even close.

"I saw it; I just didn't believe," Ike Taylor was saying Sunday after he got scorched for the only Jacksonville touchdown in a wobbly 17-13 Steelers victory at Heinz field. "There was no move [by Jaguars wideout Jason Hill]. I just didn't trust what I saw. I second-guessed myself during the play."

So with the benefit of rejected foresight, Hill beat Taylor on a long, loping post for an 18-yard touchdown that brought the Jaguars to within a touchdown near the end of the third quarter, or about an hour after they had fallen into a 17-0 ditch on their way to a fifth consecutive loss.

Taylor was virtually inconsolable, so excellent has his season been to this point, but he's not the only one who sees what the Steelers defense has done against the pass and still simply doesn't believe it.

Coach Mike Tomlin would be another.

It never comforted the coach in the least that this team had the league's top-rated pass defense, as he knew better than anyone that statistic is completely reversible. Opponents were chopping the run defense so successfully there was simply no time for, nor purpose in, piling up gratuitous passing yards.

Broken into smaller empirical bits, however, it got very tempting to feel some quantum of security.

As of this morning, three-eighths of the way through this NFL season, the Steelers have allowed only two touchdown passes in the previous five games, have rung up eight sacks in the past two games, and have not been victimized by even a single 100-plus receiving performance in a season blizzarded by air yards.

"I think the jury is still out on us and I don't run away from that; as a matter of fact I encourage it," Tomlin sniffed after his team had won for the fourth time in six weeks. "It's a good working mentality for us to have. We've done some nice things, but due to some circumstances one way or another, we haven't been tested like we will be."

Larry Fitzgerald awaits them in the desert come Sunday, and the following appointment is with Tom Brady in the North Side twilight on All Hallows Eve Eve.

In the meantime, several variables have taken on an ominous density, especially the status of Troy Polamalu. After flashing into the Jacksonville backfield to abort a critical third-and-1 play in the fourth quarter, Polamalu left the field with what Tomlin called concussion-like symptoms. It didn't help that as Polamalu tottered to his feet after his final play, Ryan Clark head-butted him a hearty congratulations.

"I hope not," Clark said about the possibility of that helmet-to-helmet aggravating the situation.

Clark had been trying to help the entire game, right down to the final play when he knocked a potential interception away from Taylor in the Steelers end zone.

"Our turnover ratio has been so bad [two takeaways against 13 giveaways] I was just trying to get one," he said.

His better effort was probably in trying to encourage Taylor, who walked the sideline, sat with his head in a towel, stalked away from Clark, and finally took a phone call from the upstairs coaches telling him to forget about Hill's score because there was still more than a quarter to be played.

Corners are going to get beat once in a while, someone pointed out in the winning locker room. If you're an NFL receiver and you can't beat the corner one on one now and again, you won't be an NFL receiver for long.

"I don't want to hear that," Taylor said. "I don't want to understand that. I don't want nobody getting' nothin' on me."

Pretty much all they've gotten this year is nothing, but somehow the pass defense has been ascribed the same brand of vague imperfection Taylor was feeling.

"Ike wants to be perfect," Clark said. "And it's that determination that makes him a great cornerback."

That said, this team's defense wasn't going to be perfect, or even reliably ferocious, unless it started getting consistent pressure on the quarterback. Five sacks Sunday were half as many as the defensive front seven had totaled in the first five games, never mind that they came against a Jacksonville offensive line as jumbled by injuries as its Steelers corollary.

"I thought we did a good job," said linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who with Brett Keisel each had two sacks (Farrior had the fifth). "When we put pressure on the quarterback we give the secondary a chance to make some plays."

All five sacks Sunday were crippling to the confidence of rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert and to any momentum the Jaguars were building, which is nifty, but all five sacks were also highly necessary to thwart an offense that has scored only six touchdowns in six games.

What to make of all that remains an enigma. I'm seeing a good pass defense, but I'm not fully believing it.

Messrs. Fitzgerald and Brady will pass judgment soon enough.

Gene Collier: More articles by this author

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