A couple of thoughts from me about the Pittsburgh Steelers's defense - a topic that seems to keep creeping in to my mind as I try to determine how the immediate and intermediate future of the team will play out. To start, I'd say that I think the Steelers problems largely lie on the defensive side of the ball. I know the offense has had its struggles. And to be sure, 27 points through two games won't cut it over the long haul. I'd like to comment more on the offense in a different post, but I would say here, just remember how efficient Ben Roethlisberger and the passing game has looked for most of the first two games. And also, don't sneeze that the success the running game had against Chicago, even if it was inconsistent and not enough to rely on or lead us to victory.
Anyway, I am quite concerned about this defense without Troy Polamalu. Before the season started, I stated on multiple occasions that I thought we would see a noticeable dropoff between the play of Bryant McFadden and William Gay. I think Gay will be just fine over time, but as he gets initiated in to every down play in the National Football League, he's definitely taking his lumps. Reserve safety Tyrone Carter is also getting plenty of flack for his play in Polamalu's absence. At this stage in his career, we know what kind of player he is and what he's capable of contributing. To expect more from him really is unrealistic. Yes, the Steelers have won football games with him starting - most notably in 2007 when Polamalu missed five games - but if you look back at those games, the best team performances were against hapless offenses like the Seahawks (w/o Hasselbeck), the Dolphins (the Mud Bowl game), and a depleted Bengals offense.
The long of the short of it, to me at least, is that this defense is going to need one player in particular to really step up his game this next month. That player is Lawrence Timmons, who saw his first action of the 2009 season on Sunday against the Bears. Timmons played pretty well against the Bears. He had two passes defended and three tackles. He was around the ball on numerous other plays and generally looked as quick and as explosive as I remember him being late last year when he really started to come on.
Think back to Sunday's game real quick with me. Do you remember how it seemed as if the Steelers were frequently this close to getting to Jay Cutler and forcing a momentum-changing sack? We'll see if I have time to re-watch the tape of this one later in the week, but I definitely can recall at least two or three times when Cutler gracefully sidestepped a blitzer and got rid of the ball. My recollection is that James Farrior was the blitzer that was getting close, but not making the play.
It seems to me that teams are spending quite a bit of capital in their pass protection packages to negate the effect of reigning Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison. Deebo has yet to register a sack this year. I do think he's getting held more frequently than is being called. And he's faced two great left tackles to start the year. But I do also think that teams are more than cognizant of the fact that he's difficult to contain with just one man.
Consequently, I think we've seen James Farrior being sent on stunts up the middle where there's less attention being paid by opposing offensive lines. In my humble opinion - and I'm certainly no Dick LeBeau - I'd swap James Farrior for Lawrence Timmons as the guy who should be most frequently sent up the middle while dropping the more savvy Farrior in to pass coverage. Timmons has ability in pass coverage - two passes defended in his first game back from injury should tell you something. But he's just more explosive and disruptive getting after the quarterback in my estimation.
Remember the play he made against Joe Flacco in the second regular season matchup between the Ravens and Steelers last December? The one where he displayed an amazing combination of speed, balance and explosive closing speed to sack Flacco and force a fumble that put them out of field goal range?
Those are the kinds of plays that have been lacking the first two weeks of the 2009 regular season. Or at least the last 6 quarters since Polamalu was injured. There are lots of talented individual players on the unit, and they're all coached by one of the best in the business. But with all the attention that Harrison, and even Woodley to some extent, are getting, there's not one athlete on the roster as capable of making a game-changing play with his athleticism than Lawrence Timmons.