View Full Version : On the Steelers: Clark embraces late game challenges

10-13-2009, 07:18 AM
On the Steelers: Clark embraces late game challenges
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

After what has happened to the Steelers' defense in the final quarters of five games this season, safety Ryan Clark might sound loopy when he challenges offenses to bring it on.

"Now teams are coming after us, teams believe they can win in the fourth quarter," Clark said shortly after he and the rest of the defense staved off a Lions rally to hang onto a 28-20 victory Sunday at Ford Field in Detroit. "They feel if they get hot they can move the ball on us. That's how you play this game, to compete. I know guys are going to come after us in the fourth quarter and I welcome the challenge."

The Steelers have allowed 55 points in the fourth quarter and only 43 in the first three quarters combined. And, considering two of those touchdowns were scored off interceptions of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the second and third quarters, the defense has allowed only 29 points in the first three quarters combined.

Therefore, of all the points the Steelers' defense has allowed, 65.5 percent have come in the fourth quarter.

It has made their season interesting, if nothing else. Even some players are finding it stimulating.

"Actually, I'm more excited now in the fourth quarter," Clark said. "When we were ahead, 28-13, some days last year you knew you were going to win and you kind of relaxed and you just go out there and go with the flow.

"This year we're not like that. We're not the same team. We're not the team that won the Super Bowl last year. We're the '09 Pittsburgh Steelers and we've been having trouble in the fourth quarter.

"So I was excited. It didn't matter if it was the Detroit Lions or New England."

These are not your '08 Steelers, not even close, but neither is their defense collapsing. The defense last season ranked first in the NFL; today it ranks No. 5, yielding 290.8 yards a game. Last season, they ranked No. 2 against the run; today they are third.

Where the difference has come is against the pass. The Steelers' defense led the NFL in fewest yards allowed passing, today they rank 14th. Combined with a dip in sacks and turnovers, that may be where the problem in the fourth quarters lie. It also could be an area in which the return of Troy Polamalu will help. Surely it will be helped by Cleveland's offense Sunday; the Browns rank next to last in the NFL on offense.

Sunday, the Lions scored one touchdown against that defense. Quarterback Daunte Culpepper scrambled twice for 44 yards; otherwise, they allowed 66 yards rushing on 23 carries. They sacked Culpepper seven times, Clark intercepted him and they stopped him and the Lions' offense when they had to late in the game.
Sacks drop slightly

The drop in sacks of Roethlisberger is not dramatic, but there is improvement and the reasons are several. He is getting rid of the ball more quickly, the line is protecting better and the receivers are getting open more often and more quickly.

Roethlisberger has been sacked 13 times in five games, an average of 2.6 per game and 41.6 for the season. Steelers quarterbacks were sacked 49 times last season. But the Steelers also average three more passes per game this season than last, 34.6 to 31.6.

Most of Roethlisberger's sacks have come when he has held the ball too long because his receivers were covered. Rarely does he throw the ball away; he does so even less than when he was younger.

But he also has completed 73.8 percent of his passes.

"Each week we're getting tested, each week we're rising up," tackle Willie Colon said. "Our receivers are getting open faster, we're getting better in our technique."
Starting halfback?

The time to declare a starter at halfback might be at hand for coach Mike Tomlin, or he could wait another week.

Rashard Mendenhall has rushed for 242 yards, 5.5 yards per carry and three touchdowns over the past two games, both starts Willie Parker missed because of his turf toe.

Parker, who has 159 yards, a 3.1-yard average and no touchdowns, is ready to return this week. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said Thursday that if Mendenhall had a second good game in Detroit, it might cause him to rethink how many carries each back gets and if the rotation -- previously, two series to one, Parker -- needs to be altered.

Certainly, Mendenhall's performance will prompt them to change the number of carries the two backs get. But who will start?

Tomlin set a nice precedent when he eased Lawrence Timmons back into the lineup from his ankle injury without starting him right away. He could do the same for Parker and safety Troy Polamalu on Sunday, and delay his decision at halfback by at least another week.
For more on the Steelers, read the new blog, Ed Bouchette On the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com.

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