Saturday, November 16, 2002

Third-down woes worry Pittsburgh

Steelers' foes converting too much

The Associated Press

PITTSBURGH - One thing is certain about the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense: Fans are seeing a lot more of it than they did last season.

Only a year after having the NFL's best defense, the Steelers are closer to the bottom of the league - 18th - than the top in yardage allowed. They're 16th in points allowed, giving up at least 30 points for the fourth time in nine games - something they never did once last season.

The reason for the falloff couldn't be more obvious: Pittsburgh can't get off the field on third down. It was a problem that haunted the Steelers in their first two games and, two months later, it is still holding them back going into Sunday's road game against the Tennessee Titans (5-4).

As they squandered a 17-point, second-half lead in their 34-all tie last weekend with Atlanta, the Steelers (5-3-1) allowed the Falcons to convert on a third-and-22, a third-and-23 and third-and-24.

As Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher said, some teams go an entire season without giving such a play, only to have his defense do it three times in a half.

This isn't a one-game phenomenon, either. Last year, the Steelers held opponents to a 34.2 percent success rate on third downs, many of them third-and-short situations. This season, it's up to 46.6 percent (62-of-133).

"We've sat and looked at every third down," Cowher said. "We've got it documented, and this was just not this game, it was something that has been there all season."

Pittsburgh got off the field on third down Sunday - but only on offense, when it twice went three-and-out during fourth-quarter possessions amid Atlanta's frantic comeback.

Cowher has been asked all week what he could do strategically to keep teams from being so effective on third down. One suggestion was to keep last year's NFL defensive rookie of the year, Kendrell Bell, on the field on third down.

By doing that, linebacker Clark Haggans would come off, and he is one of the team's most productive players with six sacks. Another was to not always be so predictable with their alignments on third down; the Steelers stayed in a dime defense - six defensive backs - throughout the Falcons' comeback.

Pittsburgh's defense even became a topic of discussion during New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick's news conference, as he observed the Steelers already show a number of looks on defense.

In fact, he said what Pittsburgh has long called a 3-4 defense is, in many cases, a 4-3.

"Most of the time, they aren't in a 3-4," he said. "They are in some type of overshifted or even front, which really plays like a 4-3. When you're on offense and you see where the players are, you have to block them like a 4-3. Because it's not a 3-4, it's a 4-3."

Belichick also said: "You can call Joey Porter a linebacker if you want to. He rushes half the time. So when he is rushing, you had better block him like a defensive end. The same thing with (Jason) Gildon. But again, you don't know which one it's going to be a lot of times until they come out and line up and show you where the front is."

Despite the Steelers' much-worse statistics than a year ago, Porter said he's not worried the defense is in for the kind of second-half letdown that kept them out of the playoffs in 1998, 1999 and 2000.

"We give up a couple of big plays, and everybody wants to panic," he said. "We've been in this situation before. We've got to be more patient on defense and make sure everybody is doing their job, not trying to do somebody else's job. If we get back to that, we'll be fine."

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No. 4 Texas 77, No. 16 Georgia 71
No. 18 Marquette 73, Villanova 61
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Alter 42, Reading 10
High school football scores

Beechwood 28, Holy Cross 6
Highlands 52, Scott 0
Boone Co. 40, Louisville Eastern 39
LexCath 29, CovCath 27
Trinity 31, Dixie Heights 16
Roncalli 17, East Central 10 (OT)
Mason Co. 49, Lloyd 21
Newport Central Catholic 47, Raceland 7

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