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Old 10-05-2009, 11:30 PM   #1
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Default Harris: Steelers defense must stay hungry

Harris: Steelers defense must stay hungry
By John Harris
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Strong safety Troy Polamalu ranks among the elite players in the NFL. The Steelers have missed Polamalu's playmaking ability since he's been out with a knee injury.

But not as much as we were led to believe based on Sunday night's 38-28 win over San Diego.

For 2.5 quarters, the Steelers' defense dominated, keeping the Chargers scoreless and allowing only five first downs as Polamalu observed from the sideline wearing a warm-up suit.

However, the last quarter and a half was a roller-coaster ride featuring plenty of thrills by the Steelers' offense, and spills courtesy of the defense.

And while it's easy to pile on the special teams for being directly responsible for one touchdown and indirectly responsible for another seven points during San Diego's 21-point outburst in the fourth quarter, the defense was largely culpable.

"When you get leads, you don't want to mess up and let them get big plays," nose tackle Casey Hampton said.

Hampton addressed the Steelers' defense calling off the dogs after building a 28-0 lead midway through the third quarter.

The defense began settling for not giving up big plays instead of making them.

In gratitude, a less harried Philip Rivers amassed 189 of his 254 passing yards and threw his three touchdown passes after halftime.

"When you're playing with a lead, that's how you play defense. You want to keep the ball in front of you," Hampton said. "But, still, you've got to play better than that. You just can't give them a touchdown."

Eventually, the Steelers' "prevent" defense prevented a San Diego victory, although not by much.

In a strange role reversal, the Steelers' offense adopted the philosophy of the defense, while the defense played like the offense.

The offense became aggressive and reckless, and it gambled against San Diego.

Ben Roethlisberger passed for 333 yards and two touchdowns. Rashard Mendenhall blazed for 165 yards and two scores. Coach Mike Tomlin opted to go for it on fourth-and-1 from his 30 in the first quarter. Running back Mewelde Moore threw a touchdown pass.

The defense, after stifling San Diego's offense early, became more conservative and predictable.

A first half featuring a stout run defense that completely neutralized running back LaDainian Tomlinson and tight man-to-man coverage in the secondary became a second half of caution for the Steelers.

"We're just too soft, man," Hampton said. "We're better than how we played. We're gonna get aggressive."

Starting with the big man himself.

Hampton has played at a higher level than he did last year. He's been much better at pushing the center back in the pocket on pass plays.

Hampton, in fact, is campaigning to get his old job back as an every-down player. He isn't content coming out of the game in obvious third-down passing situations.

After registering his first sack of the season against Cincinnati, Hampton just missed his second sack when he stopped a scrambling Rivers for a 1-yard-gain on second-and-9 in the first quarter.

"I think they're going to get me in a little bit more on (pass) rushing downs," Hampton said. "I'm definitely going to ask for it. I've been asking for it. It's just a matter of getting me in. I definitely think they're going to give me an opportunity."

For Hampton, that opportunity can't come soon enough.

John Harris can be reached at jharris@tribweb.com or 412-481-5432.
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