PITTSBURGH — Dick LeBeau’s once-ferocious defense doesn’t have much bite anymore.
This year’s unit was supposed to be younger and faster, but instead has gotten older and slower as injuries have sidelined three starters. Consequently, the Steelers are suffering from the big-play blues, surrendering them by the bucketful.
After holding the Browns’ offense to minus-8 yards on six plays in the first quarter Sunday, the Steelers surrendered five pass plays of 31 yards or longer (51, 41, 31, 31 and 34) in the final three quarters of the ugly 31-10 loss and six runs of 10 yards or longer, including a 24-yarder.
In six games, the Steelers (3-3) have given up 11 pass plays of 31 yards or longer. Five of those passes have been for 40 yards or longer. The Steelers are 1-3 in games where they have allowed a play of 40 yards or longer this season.
“I love these guys, but if we’re not getting the job done, they’re going to search elsewhere,” defensive end Cameron Heyward said. “I want everybody to be here, including myself, but if we don’t get the job done, this isn’t going to be a good season.
“We’ve got to get out of this trading one for one, win for a loss. We have to regroup and get back at it.”
Although he completed just 8 of 17 passes for 217 yards against the Steelers, Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer (6-2 as a starter) hooked up with tight end Jordan Cameron on a 42-yard completion and again on 51-yard touchdown as Cleveland scored three second-quarter TDs.
“We just got to stop the big plays,” inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons said. “That’s pretty much what that game was. If you look at the quarterback, it wasn’t like he was Peyton Manning, 90 percent (completions) or whatever. He just made the big plays and made those necessary plays to make the chains move.”
There is growing concern about the defense, and it’s hard to tell what the future holds for LeBeau, the former Hall of Fame player and the team’s 77-year-old defensive coordinator.
His unit has been without No. 1 picks Ryan Shazier (right knee) and Jarvis Jones (wrist surgery/injured reserve) as well as veteran cornerback Ike Taylor (broken right forearm) for the past three games. Four more starters were banged up against the Browns. Nose tackle Steve McLendon (right shoulder sprain), Keisel (knee sprain) and free safety Mike Mitchell (knee sprain) did not return to the game. Heyward (ankle) eventually returned to the game.
The last-place Steelers, who re-signed aging veterans Brett Keisel and James Harrison as a stop-gap measure, will return to action Monday night in a nationally televised game against running back Arian Foster and the Texans (3-3). It is the first of three consecutive home games. The stretch also includes tussles against quarterback Andrew Luck and the AFC South-leading Colts (4-2) and Joe Flacco and the AFC North rival Ravens (4-2).
The Steelers are 1-1 at home this year, with a three-point win over the Browns (30-27) in the opener and a last-second loss to the lowly Bucs (27-24) late last month.
“We got to win, no matter how, whether it’s 100-99 or 3-0,” strong safety Troy Polamalu said. “We just got to put victories on the board.”