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Savran: It's tough tackling Steelers' problems

Saturday, October 11, 2003

Invoking the classic Chuck Noll line to summarize the many issues troubling the Steelers seems appropriate. In describing the travails of his fumble-prone running back Sydney Thornton, said Noll, "He has many problems, and they are great!"

If these Steelers had one or two glaring weaknesses, the coaching staff might be able to focus on those items and perhaps correct them to some degree. But when the entire building collapses, which piece do you pick up first?

Clearly, the offensive line throbs like an infected thumb. But there are no magical personnel moves to be made. Good offensive linemen don't grow on trees or waiver wires. They have what they have and will have to make do.

The same applies to the much-maligned defensive backfield. If the Steelers are looking for a shut-down cornerback, he's playing elsewhere at present. And although we're seeing some alterations in player groupings -- getting better cover men such as DeShea Townsend into the lineup more often -- the secondary, like the offensive line, will have to make do with what's there, as unappetizing as that might seem.

It certainly isn't popular these days to mount a defense for the defensive backs, something they've been unable to do on their own. But they're not getting a whole lot of help from their beefier brethren up front. The front seven is simply spending too much time on its side of the line of scrimmage, and even the best secondary needs its front people to at least force a quarterback to hurry a throw once in a while. Last Sunday night, Browns quarterback Tim Couch had more than enough time to pass.

This Steelers defense was designed to stop the run. They wanted their cornerbacks to be big and strong to play run support. And that was OK, because the front seven exerted extreme pressure and made huge plays so that the secondary didn't have to. But the game has changed.

Even in 2001, when the Steelers defense wa s the scourge of the NFL, the secondary was just slightly above average, its weaknesses camouflaged by a front seven that consistently forced quarterbacks into quicker-than-desired throws or dropped them to the ground altogether.

Anybody seen much of that lately?

It's not just that the Steelers are on pace for their lowest sack total in years. It's that they're allowing the likes of Couch to stand back in the pocket as if he's a member of a roadside survey crew.

And I don't buy the notion that it's because the Browns were running the dreaded dink-and-dunk offense that so many teams used so successfully against the Steelers last season. Cleveland ran its variation of the spread, but it wasn't the rhythmic quick drop/quick throw offense. On too many occasions, Couch had enough time to recite the preamble to the Constitution while he stood back there, with time left to make a few revisions if he chose. Meanwhile, the Steelers are forced to chase the Browns receivers all over the field. That's an equation for certain defeat.

So where are the havoc-wreckers these days, especially those who line up with one hand on the ground?

You might remind them that their job is to get a strong push, thereby creating rush lanes for the linebackers. I haven't seen much of that, either.

Joey Porter is on record and on tape as wanting the shackles taken off the defense, meaning he wants to blitz more. But that's what linebackers always want to do, so a grain of salt should be taken with his comment.

The Steelers contend they're blitzing as much as they ever have. I can't document that, but it should be remembered that blitzing is a simplified solution to a complex problem -- a quick fix for those uneducated in the finer points of the game.

Blitzing is not a panacea, nor does it come without risks. You start sending people without regard to the consequences, you end up paying them. Blitzing generally forces your cornerbacks to play man to man, placing them on an island.

Does that sound especially appealing, given the Steelers personnel?

Even turning linebackers loose won't aid a vulnerable secondary if the defense doesn't get a good push up front.

One of the preseason objectives was to get a better rush from the down linemen. It begins there, but it hasn't yet begun for the Steelers. If it doesn't, all the blitzing in the world isn't going to provide the help this secondary so desperately needs.

Linebackers might be the ones who get to do the sack dances, but it's the down linemen who serve as the choreographers. It's what's up front that counts.

Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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