By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers generally have been rated among the best defensive teams in the NFL and have set league standards in rushing defense in previous years.
That wasn't the case this past season, and the club's run defense has continued to be an area of concern thus far this season. Veteran defensive end Brett Keisel harkened to his youth for a solution.
"You can go back to your childhood and two-hand touch,'' Keisel said Monday after practice. "If you can get two hands on him, you should be able to get him on the ground. So, just getting back to the basic fundamentals of football. Sometimes, as a pro, you might get away from it.''
Keisel said he was unsure why the Steelers players have gotten away from doing "the little things'' that it takes to be successful, but he knows that changes have to be made quickly before the season spirals out of control. While the Steelers are ranked 20th in total defense (356 yards per game), including seventh against the pass (186), they are 29th overall against the run (170). Only the St. Louis Rams, Green Bay Packers and Oakland Raiders have allowed more yards on the ground.
"Maybe you just play the game so long and maybe, since you're a pro, you're above it,'' Keisel said. "But there's a reason that we're taught things like that at a young age. That's because they're good habits to get into, to make sure that you're in a good position to make a play when it's there. ... It's new faces and new guys understanding new techniques and new responsibilities."
"And having habits that you've had all your football lives and trying to change those to the new techniques and roles that your new team tries to put you in, it's a hard transition, but it's a transition that has to happen. It's a transition that you have to do, so that's the biggest thing. Having that understanding so that when a play is called, you can execute your responsibility.''
One area of concern has been in defending the outside zone. The Steelers had issues defending last year, for awhile, but then figured it out and played pretty well during the second half of last season. This year's team can't afford to wait that long. The turnaround needs to be immediate or this could be a long season.
"Teams are going to continue to run the same plays that we're struggling with, because it's a copycat league,'' Keisel said. "So, in order to shut those things down, we've got to stop it. ... We just need to come into work and have that mentality that we're going to get better today and focus on those things we need to do to be a good, productive pro."
"(And) we need to be gap-sound. The reason that a good defense is a good defense is because everyone understands his role and is accountable. When the ball is being snapped, they're where they're supposed to be. So, if one guy slips up and one guy isn't where he's supposed to be, our opponents can exploit that, and that's what has happened to us. So, we've all got to be accountable.''
Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell is in his first year with the club after a season with the Carolina Panthers, who the team visits Sunday for a 1 p.m. ET matchup. Mitchell believes the Steelers have all the players needed to be a good defense, as long as the club follows veterans such as Keisel and Troy Polamalu.
"The young guys just have to buy into what they're saying and what they're doing,'' Mitchell said. "They have a winning formula that's proven, so it would be good for us to follow that formula. We've got to continue to improve all the way across the board."
"I think the No. 1 thing that jumps out at you is our run defense. We need to improve in that area, and I don't know how to do that other than continue to work hard in practice and work to get better at it. So, that's what we're going to do this week.''
Polamalu recalled the way last season quickly disintegrated into an 0-4 start and a 2-6 first half, and he believed any changes this season needed to happen quickly to avoid a repeat.
"We have to work things out on defense or else we're going to be up and down like we were last year,'' Polamalu said. "There's always a sense of urgency to me, whether we're 2-0 or 0-2. ... We just need to take care of what's in our control, and if we can do that everything else should take care of itself.''
Second-year outside linebacker Jarvis Jones is one of the young Steelers on defense who needs to figure things out quickly. Jones offered this response.
"We can't worry about what everybody else is saying or what everybody else is doing,'' Jones said. "We just have to control what we can control, and at the end of the day we're the ones who are playing this game. And we're the ones who have to go out there and produce. So, what we need to do is stay tight here and do what our coaches ask us to do and do it right."
"We need to take advantage of this time that we have, this practice time, and get better. I think we've just got to be sound and everybody play their own assignments to the T and be disciplined. Like I've said, I feel that everything that everybody got against us (the Browns and Ravens), was because of us."
"It wasn't that they executed and just beat us,'' Jones added. "I feel like it was given to them. So, if we do what we're supposed to do, I feel like we'll be a great defense. I'm not saying that we're playing undisciplined, but on some plays we just did not play as sound as we would like to.''
Notes: The Steelers aren't required to put out an official injury report after extra practices like the one on Monday. But wideout Lance Moore (groin), who missed the first two games, said he felt better than he has in three weeks. He expected to continue to practice this week and, barring any setbacks, is expecting to play Sunday. ... RB Dri Archer also got a good workout, but his left ankle was heavily taped, and his left knee had a huge bag of ice on it. He went into the trainer's room and was not available after practice. So, his status won't be known until Coach Mike Tomlin's press conference Tuesday.