How about a little AFC North road action? Everybody ready? Oh what’s that you say? You’re nervous? Yeah me too. The Steelers haven’t won a road game since January 1st in Cleveland at the end of last season. However, they are the winners of 9 of their last 10 regular season meetings in Cincinnati. In spite of their 4th quarter collapses in 4 out of the 5 games played, the Steelers defense still ranks 5th overall in the NFL. Battered and bruised from injuries and critics, can the Steelers, particularly the Steelers defense, take care of their road business this weekend against the Bungles?
So many questions but not a whole lot of answers to give. You can look at it from every angle as to what has gone wrong with the Steelers defense so far this season but it will all come down to the players making the plays on the field. So much criticism has been tossed around. Criticism of Ike Taylor, of Dick LeBeau, of Ryan Mundy, of the front 3, and the defense as a whole has been thrown out and debated up and down since the Steelers most recent disappointing loss in Tennessee last Thursday night. It has been like a perfect storm of things going wrong to lead to the slow and uncharacteristic start for this Steelers defense.
The criticism of Ike Taylor for the amount of receptions, yards, and penalties he’s allowed so far this season is not solely his fault. If it wasn’t for the fact that the pass rush coming from Hampton, Hood, and Keisel has been nonexistent so far, Ike wouldn’t have to cover as long as he has been and wouldn’t nearly be targeted as much either. That being said, Ike had a career year last season establishing himself as a true shut-down corner and so far this season, is just getting exposed over and over again. Of course he was bound to get targeted more after how that playoff game in Denver ended last season, but he has yet to rise to the challenge. You can bet your ass Ike is going to have his hands full with AJ Green this Sunday night. If he can return to his regular season form of last year and stop committing so many costly penalties, he won’t have to worry about what the local media has to say about him.
The problems in the secondary can also be attributed to the lack of one former Defensive Player of the Year, Troy Polamalu. Although Tomlin has implemented the “next man up” mantra and saying over and over again that he doesn’t have starters and non starters he has starters and starters in waiting, Ryan Mundy is no Troy Polamalu and it’s unfair to expect him to be. Last week Mundy even lost his spot to Will Allen, a primarily Special Teams player. You can’t just fill in for a player of Troy’s capabilities and not see a difference. What has to happen and what hasn’t happened on the defense is not necessarily the “next man up” needs to step up for an injured star, but the rest of the stars on defense need to step up in addition. Ryan Mundy does not equal Troy Polamalu so that means that Mundy + Clark + Taylor + Woodley + Harrison should combine to make up for the loss of the dynamic presence of Troy.
As far as the criticism for Dick LeBeau, I refuse to believe that LeBeau has gone from a defensive genius in the NFL to an old man who is so stuck in his ways he can’t budge and make adjustments when something isn’t working. There’s nothing wrong with the 3-4 defense. There’s something wrong with the Steelers execution of the 3-4 defense so far this year. The biggest problem so far is with those front 3. All preseason we heard how great McLendon was performing but he’s seen little to no playing time so far this season. Former first round top pick Cam Heyward hasn’t been on the field so much this year either. With that being said Hampton is no longer drawing double teams and the DE’s aren’t creating the opportunities for the LB’s to get to the quarterback as is intended with this defense. That’s not coaching, that’s execution. Clearly McLendon and Heyward aren’t giving the coaches any reason during the week to make them think that putting them on the field on Sundays is a good idea, you have to assume that Tomlin and LeBeau are playing who they feel will give them a better chance. The players just aren’t executing plain and simple. LeBeau’s defense is to prevent the big plays and stop the run. Well, the defense has allowed big plays, sometimes that big play being a run.
Even with all the hype surrounding the Bengals as becoming one of the teams to fear in the AFC North with the combination of Dalton and Green, the Steelers were able to take care of business there last season and swept the Bungles. This is a pivotal game for both the Bengals and the Steelers as the Ravens have just been bitten hard by the injury bug. If the Ravens can’t make it past the Texans and the Steelers can handle their business in Cincy, they’ll jump to the #2 spot in the division and the entire Steeler Nation will breathe a huge sigh of relief. I gotta be honest with you; I don’t know how this is going to all play out. We could be in for a very long and disappointing season, we could be looking back at this in December after clinching the division and laugh about how panicked we were to start. All I know is the book has not been written and published yet on the 2012 Steelers, but this next chapter in Cincy is a very important one. Here We Go Steelers!
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