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Pass defense reversing last year’s trend

While everyone worries about whether Amos Zereoue or Jerome Bettis should be carrying the ball more, or whether or not Antwaan Randle El is getting enough touches, or if it’s right that Mark Bruener isn’t dressing for games anymore, little attention has been paid to what most perceived as the Steelers biggest problem entering the season. Pass defense.

But after three weeks, the Steelers have the top-rated pass defense in the AFC and the second-highest-rated pass defense in the entire NFL behind only the defending Super Bowl Champion Buccaneers.

At his Tuesday press conference, Bill Cowher said he was pleased with the improvement but blew it off as “only being three games. We’re still finding out about ourselves.”

When I reminded him that it was a whole lot better than the first three games last year, he laughed and said “Well, yeah, when you look at it that way.”

You probably don’t need to be reminded how dismal things were last September after the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders threw the ball at will against the Steelers. Tom Brady passed for nearly 300 yards and three touchdowns, at one time throwing on more than 20 straight plays on the Monday Night opener. The Raiders followed in week two by throwing 64 passes at the Steelers with Rich Gannon topping 400 passing yards.

It was only two weeks, but the table was set and many other teams feasted as the season wore on. The Steelers finished 20th in the league in pass defense.

Cornerback Deshea Townsend thinks they were, in part, victims of their own success against the run. “Teams gave up even trying to run the ball against us. We didn’t expect to see so much passing, especially early in the year.”

Late in the year it was still the trend. With Tennessee visiting Sunday, it’s good to remember the Titans passed for 588 yards against the Steelers in their two wins over them last year.

How desperate were the Steelers to improve in that department• They traded up in the first round of the draft for the first time in their history. And they drafted a safety in the first round for the first time in their history. Troy Polamalu has had little impact so far. That’s not out of the ordinary considering the position.

But the other major change has had a big impact. Exit Lee Flowers. Enter Mike Logan. That switch at strong safety has been key. Logan has so much more speed than Flowers and has also handled the mental part of the game well.

Having Kendrell Bell back also helps, although that was offset a bit by having Joey Porter out. Now we’ll finally get to see the benefit of having both in there healthy.

Don’t forget about the nickel defense. Last year, when the Steelers went to the dime, it became an invitation for teams to get cheap rushing yardage. With the addition of the five-defensive-back nickel package, they are much more flexible defensively.

Finally, don’t count out pride. The Steelers defense, the secondary in particular, was determined to play better this year than last, and they have. Other than a rash of pass interference penalties, the difference has been night and day.

The Steelers have given up an average of only 130 yards a game through the air. Heck, teams were getting that in a half last year. Yet it’s easy to understand why Cowher isn’t willing to get too excited about it. In their opener against the Ravens, the Steelers faced Kyle Boller, a green, rookie quarterback playing his first NFL game. In the loss to the Chiefs, they didn’t have to worry about pass defense because Dante Hall on special teams and Priest Holmes on the ground combined to light them. Last week’s win came against the Bengals. Enough said.

Nonetheless, the results have been encouraging. Two of the NFL’s better tight ends, Todd Heap and Tony Gonzalez, did little damage. All kidding aside about the Bengals, they were second to only the Steelers in pass success the first two weeks. John Kitna had no trouble throwing against the Raiders and Broncos but managed only 125 passing yards against the Steelers.

And how about getting interception on the opponents’ first drives in all three games• Talk about setting the table. Four interceptions and seven sacks by the Steelers are big reasons those passing numbers are down, too.

This week should be a great test with Steve McNair in town. And while I’m not convinced that the Steelers problems with pass defense are over, at this time last year I wasn’t convinced that they would continue to struggle either. Somehow I always expect things to change. But hey, a trend is a trend. How many games does it take?


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