Tuesday, September 09, 2014

12 years later, another blueprint for attacking the Steelers defense

Monday, Sept. 8, 2014, 9:30 p.m.

Just like a meaningless 2001 game proved troublesome to the Steelers well into the following season, a meaningless preseason game last month is creating problems that can't be solved in a day.

The Steelers can only hope three days is enough, because that's all the time they have before they play in Baltimore on Thursday night.

Three weeks ago, Eagles quarterback Nick Foles gave the rest of the NFL exactly what Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna did 13 years ago: A blueprint to dissect the Steelers defense.

Foles and backup Mark Sanchez ran the no-huddle offense to perfection as the Eagles opened up leads of 24-0 and 31-7 in that Aug. 21 preseason game, effectively slowing down the Steelers defense by speeding it up with fast-executed plays.

Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer copied that in the second half of the Steelers' 30-27 victory Sunday at Heinz Field, directing four consecutive scoring drives to narrowly miss leading the greatest comeback win ever against Pittsburgh.

It wasn't all that complicated what he did, either.

The Browns ran their outside zone blocking running scheme to fast-paced perfection against a huffing-and-puffing defensive line that couldn't slow it. That allowed Hoyer to keep completing misdirection passes even without his two best targets — the suspended Josh Gordon and the injured Jordan Cameron.

Coach Mike Tomlin didn't need to go into much detail Monday to describe what's wrong: “Zone blocking with misdirection creates problems for us.”

As defensive end Brett Keisel said, the NFL is “a copycat league” and the Browns merely executed what the Eagles proved would work.

“We have worked extensively against it,” Tomlin said. “We've had some good days. Obviously, yesterday (Sunday) was not one.”

Will Thursday be another?

Just like teams kept throwing and throwing and throwing against them early in the 2002 season, the Steelers understand they're likely to keep seeing the no-huddle.

Coincidentally, Cincinnati's no-huddle constantly frustrated the Ravens defense during the Bengals' 23-16 win Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

“We practice it. We talk about it,” cornerback Ike Taylor said. “As soon as we came in (Monday), we all started talking just trying to figure out a way. We'll figure it out sooner or later before Thursday.”

Tomlin obviously hopes all that talking carries over to games, saying a lack of communication between the bench and the players on the field, and the players themselves, contributed to the problem.

“Communication is integral to execution, and I thought we could have communicated better,” he said.
Perhaps the solution will arrive the same way it did in 2002.

Then, the Patriots copied what Kitna did by throwing 68 times against the Steelers late in the '01 season — the third-most attempts in league history — by having Tom Brady throw 25 consecutive passes during a season-opening 30-14 win.

The following week, Rich Gannon set a Raiders record by throwing 64 times during a 30-17 Oakland win at Heinz Field.

The Steelers finally ended the trend by benching Kordell Stewart and installing their own pass-heavy quarterback, Tommy Maddox, who later had a 57-pass game of his own against Houston.

Maybe that's the answer this time: The offense must bail out the defense.

“You don't get beat (just) on defense, you have to beat it on offense as well,” safety Troy Polamalu said. “You have to control the clock on offense, get first downs and great field position.”

If the Steelers don't, coach Bill Cowher's words in 2002 might prove fitting for this team, too.

“We've got to get it fixed, or it's going to be a long season,” Cowher said. “Until we show we can stop it, teams are going to keep doing it.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

Cleveland Browns wide receiver Travis Benjamin (11) makes a touchdown catch in front of Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor (24) in the fourth quarter of the NFL football game on Sunday in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene Puskar).

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