Bye a good break for Steelers
By F. Dale Lolley,
PITTSBURGH – Taking a few days off during a bye weekend might have been just what the doctor ordered for the struggling Steelers defense.
Both Troy Polamalu and James Harrison were back at practice Monday for the Steelers as they returned from their four-day weekend and began preparation for their game Sunday at Heinz Field against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The practice for Polamalu was his third consecutive since the Steelers (1-2) lost, 34-31, at Oakland Sept. 23. The All-Pro strong safety hasn’t played since suffering a calf strain in the Steelers’ Week 1 loss at Denver.
Harrison, meanwhile, returned to practice Monday after working last Tuesday and sitting out Wednesday. The All-Pro linebacker is attempting to return to the field for the first time this season after undergoing minor knee surgery in August to remove loose cartilage.
It’s no secret that having a pair of former NFL defensive players of the year – Harrison won the award in 2008, Polamalu in 2010 – could be a big boost for a defense that has struggled thus far this season. “We will see once we all get on the field together,” said Polamalu, who needs one interception to reach 30 in his career. “There are some other new faces out there that have become starters. It’s about how all 11 guys are playing together.”
With Polamalu sitting out the past two games, Ryan Mundy has started at strong safety. Meanwhile, the Steelers have rotated Chris Carter and Jason Worilds at outside linebacker in place of Harrison.
Without two of their best playmakers on the field, Pittsburgh’s defense has struggled, particularly on the road, where it has allowed opponents to score points in eight of nine second-half drives.
“Getting off the field on third downs is a big issue for us, as well as red zone defense,” said Polamalu. “We just have to make better adjustments on the field in what we see and anticipating what we are going to get from an offense.”
The Steelers rank 30th in the league, permitting opponents to convert 48.5 percent of their third downs, and have given up nine scores on 10 trips by opponents inside their 20.
Part of the reason for the trouble on defense has been a lack of overall pressure. The Steelers have just five sacks in their first three games, putting them on pace for 27. That would be their fewest since they had 19 in 1988, a season that ended with a 5-11 record.
The return of Harrison, who had nine sacks in 11 games in 2011, could certainly help that. “We have to make more plays. We do have to get more pressure,” said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. “It’s a team situation. In any close games, a play here or a play there makes the difference. We have to be the ones making those plays, which in the two losses we weren’t.”
Odds and end zones
Running back Rashard Mendenhall continues to practice fully and appears to be ready to return to the lineup against the Eagles. Mendenhall hasn’t played since tearing his ACL last Jan. 1 against Cleveland. ... The Steelers play two games in the next 10 days, hosting the Eagles this Sunday and traveling to Tennessee Oct. 11.