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Steelers Exclusive! Finder on the Web: Steeler defense a pale imitation of the real thing

Tuesday, September 26, 2000

The defense used to close the deal. For years, the Steelers forged their personna on steely defensive resolve, if not a Steel Curtain. They believed any taut, tight game was theirs. So many were.


Before this season, two of every five Steelers victories came in games decided by a touchdown or less. Thirty-one of Bill Cowher's 77 victories as coach arrived that way. Yet the past two seasons and the start of this one, the defense -- the identity -- has failed the Steelers with numbing alacrity. Close games have belonged to the other guys. Too many have.

With Sunday's 23-20 loss to Tennessee, the Steelers have lost nine of their past 11 games decided by a touchdown or less. They have lost five of six by a field goal or less. They have lost back-to-back Sundays because of an identity crisis: The formerly reliable defense couldn't stop the opposition from scoring -- Cleveland a winning field goal on its final possession, Tennessee a winning touchdown on its final drive.

Gripe about the past few seasons' offensive displays all you want. What the Steelers have lost, besides a pile of games lately (18 of their past 24), is that once-defining defensive edge.

"We've just got to finish it off," linebacker Levon Kirkland was saying Monday. "That's supposed to be one of the best teams in the AFC, Tennessee, and I thought we took it to them. But we didn't finish it. So it doesn't really matter.

"We're just not finishing, and that's the frustrating part."

The last time the Steelers' defense brought down the curtain on a triumph was Atlanta, Oct. 25, 1999, Three Rivers Stadium, 13-9. Ever since, the unit has gone 0 for 5. Late last season, it allowed the expansion Browns to drive downfield and kick a winning field goal, Tennessee and Baltimore to kill off the clock in losses. The past two weeks, it allowed the Browns again to drive downfield -- courtesy of one huge pass play, granted -- to kick the winning field goal, and it allowed Tennessee to drive 64 yards in four plays for the winning touchdown.

Even more, the Titans were graciously permitted to drive to their winning touchdown with a ailing quarterback, Steve McNair, cold off the bench. With the soul of their offense, tight end Frank Wycheck, and their top two wideouts, Kevin Dyson and Yancey Thigpen, either missing or useless because of injuries. With yet another third-and-long situation.

In essence, they couldn't even stop the Tennessee second team on third down.

The Titans completed third-down passes for first downs on six of 10 tries. They compiled 180 of their 292 passing yards on third-and-long situations. It should be noted that the Steelers seemingly rediscovered their run-stuffing personna, or, as Kirkland put it, "We're getting back to that mode where nobody is running the ball on us." But there's no use in getting to third-and-long if you keep giving up long completions for first downs.

Safety Scott Shields blew the third-and-11 pass nearly overthrown by McNair,

on his first play, to Chris Sanders. Linebacker Jason Gildon blew the coverage on the game-winning,18-yard pass from McNair to a wide open. . . rookie tightend Erron Kinney? The guy had two catches his previous two games and just three quarters of NFL experience, but he

caught as many for 35 vital yards in Sunday's fourth.

The defense had a breakthrough Sunday in one regard: It intercepted passes. Only the Steelers and Tennessee started the afternoon without one in 2000. Then the Steelers went out and picked Neil O'Donnell's pocket passes three times. It was a start for a team that so banked upon defensive big plays.

Remember the days of yore, when the Steelers' defense scored? Or arranged offensive touchdowns with a fumble recovery or interception or push-them-back sack? That, too, was the stamp of a Cowher team from the beginning, back when five Warren Moon interceptions set up 17 points in his opening-game triumph of 1992. Cowher teams were good for three defensive touchdowns or more a season. Cowher teams won 16 consecutive games when the defense scored.

Then, after a defense-inspired victory over Jacksonville in the middle of 1998, it stopped.

Only four times in the past 19 games have the Steelers intercepted more than a single pass. Only four times during the past 24 games has the defense reached the end zone, and only one of those contributed to a victory. Most of those big-play players have been lost, too: Carnell Lake (four scores under Cowher), Rod Woodson (five), Chris Oldham (two), Darren Perry and Brentson Buckner (one apiece). OK, so even yeoman players such as Gerald Williams and Kenny Davidson and Larry Griffin each managed to record a defensive touchdown. Yet that All-Gone list simply symbolizes the slippage of this once-sturdy defense: It has been drained of too much talent over the years.

Pro Bowler Lake and Perry ultimately have been replaced by Lee Flowers, Brent Alexander and Scott Shields at safeties. Pro Bowler Woodson and Willie Williams have been replaced by Dewayne Washington and Chad Scott. Pro Bowlers Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene and Chad Brown have been replaced by Gildon and a line of outside linebackers that now stops, rather decently, at promising Joey Porter. A pass-rushing line that once boasted Ray Seals and a healthy Joel Steed has been replaced by free-agent leftovers, a rotation of kids and Kevin Henry.

The same turnover-charged, sack-happy results cannot be expected.

Yet enough of the facets remain -- the system, the inside linebackers, the need for a defensive identity, the motivation-oriented head coach -- that the Steelers defense should be expected to more often than not seal the deal the way it once did in tight games, instead of

going 1 for 8 of late and 0 for 2 to start this season. No wonder the club is

0-3 and heading for 0-5, it's worst start since 1968.

Next comes Jacksonville this Sunday, and, well, trust me when I predict that they won't finish off the Jaguars, either. There isn't enough talent to hold off a bunch of Jaguars named Mark Brunell and Jimmy Smith and Fred Taylor. There isn't the same opportunistic defense on which to rely for turnovers and sacks and tables set for the offense. There isn't the savvy and emotion and confidence and swagger that Cowher -- an old defensive guy himself -- and close victory after close victory instilled in the unit.

It all has been replaced by a unit that clamps down in the second and third quarters, but can no longer shut down anyone in the beginning or, more important, in the end.

From resolve to solved.

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