By Will Graves
December 10, 2014
Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green (18) makes a 81-yard touchdown reception during the second half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014, in Cincinnati. (Michael Conroy/Associated Press)
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Dick LeBeau's defense is not easy to grasp. For that, the Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator is unapologetic.
Yet for all the wrinkles the ever-tinkering LeBeau adds on a weekly basis, there is an underlying simplicity. Containment, not chaos, is the key to success.
''We always talk about having a lid on the can,'' cornerback Ike Taylor said. ''Once that lid comes off man, anything can happen. Anything can come out of that can.''
All too often this season, it has.
While the Steelers (8-5) remain in the midst of a claustrophobic race for the AFC North, they've done it on the power of an offense that is obliterating the club record book, one that's done its best to overcome the alarming number of momentum-shifting plays allowed by a defense that can't seem to find anything resembling consistency.
Pittsburgh has allowed 13 pass plays of more than 40 yards this season, including five in the last four games. That's only three less than the team allowed from 2011-13 combined. Not exactly the way to end a two-year playoff drought with the erratic but explosive Falcons looming.
''It's a little bit of everything,'' safety Troy Polamalu said. ''We're not executing right and they're making great plays too. It's definitely something that we're going to need to stop, that's for sure.''
While coach Mike Tomlin is quick to defend his secondary, he's well aware the breakdowns need to slow down.
''We shouldn't be surprised that these guys are capable of getting deep, but at the same time it's our job to minimize it,'' he said.
Quarterbacks have been targeting every member of the Pittsburgh secondary deep.
Last Sunday, Taylor couldn't get a hand on Cincinnati's A.J. Green at the line of scrimmage in the second quarter. Moments later, Green was racing across the goal line after an 81-yard touchdown.
The week prior, Taylor kept his eyes on New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees instead of wide receiver Kenny Stills only to see Stills sneak behind him for a game-breaking 69-yard score. In a victory over Tennessee, Nate Washington darted by William Gay for an 80-yard touchdown. Even Michael Vick and the offensively challenged New York Jets hit the Steelers for a 67-yard strike to T.J. Graham in the first quarter of a 20-13 upset.
And Julio Jones awaits in Atlanta. All he did was torch the Green Bay Packers for 259 yards last week.
''He is that offense,'' Taylor said.
And this version of the Pittsburgh defense hardly resembles the one that went 13 straight years ranked in the top 10, thanks in part to injuries and inconsistent play.
Taylor missed eight games with a broken right forearm. Cortez Allen received a five-year deal on the eve of the opener only to lose his confidence, his starting job and ultimately his season due to a busted thumb. Safety Mike Mitchell has yet to make a significant impact and the splash plays Polamalu provided regularly for years have all but disappeared.
Now guys like Brice McCain and Antwon Blake, both of whom began the season near the bottom of the depth chart, are learning on the job. And while the Steelers point to progress - namely the way they shut down the Bengals in the fourth quarter last week - plenty of work remains to be done.
Best to do it in the midst of a playoff race. It hasn't been perfect - not even close - but that's unnecessary when the offense is more than holding its own.
''I feel like the concrete is settling with the secondary,'' Taylor said. ''I feel like everybody understands now what we need to do.''
They just need to do it better. Now.
NOTES: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was given Wednesday off for the second straight week but it was not injury related. ... Taylor (shoulder/forearm), Gay (quadriceps), linebacker James Harrison (knee) did not practice. ... Right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who has missed the last two weeks with an ankle injury, did practice.
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