The “Yield Curtain”? Steelers defense trying to fix problems
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Keith Butler couldn’t help but laugh.
The Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator knows his group is having a hard enough time stopping the most basic plays during its bumpy start, let alone the gimmick Baltimore threw out last week when Ravens tight end Maxx Williams lined up between the guard and center then caught a 22-yard pass from Joe Flacco.
“When have they ever been fair to the defense?” Butler said with a shrug on Thursday when asked if a play such as that should be legal.
“When are they ever going to be fair to the defense? That ain’t happening. We’ve got to adjust.”
The quicker the better if Pittsburgh (1-2-1) wants to avoid falling further off the pace in the resurgent AFC North.
All the Steelers have to do this week is slow down the Atlanta Falcons (1-3), who will come to Heinz Field with quarterback Matt Ryan, star wide receiver Julio Jones and budding rookie star Calvin Ridley.
“Seems like we’re playing against the best quarterbacks in the league and the best daggum receivers in the league,” Butler said.
“It’s gonna help us in the long run. Right now, I wish we didn’t have to play against them. But we’re learning from it. I think we’re getting better.”
Even if evidence at the moment is hard to come by. Pittsburgh is 30th in the league in yards allowed and 26th in points allowed.
The previous time they finished in the bottom third of the league in either category came during Chuck Noll’s final season in 1991.
The problem is there isn’t just one problem. Communication issues. Poor tackling. An influx of new faces that have yet to gel. The list of Pittsburgh’s defensive shortcomings is growing by the week.
The Ravens threw in a new wrinkle last Sunday night, effectively playing “keep away” by holding onto the ball for more than 23 minutes in the second half.
“We’ve got to get off the field,” Butler said.
Defensive tackle Cam Heyward caused a stir in the aftermath when he stressed the need for his teammates to “buy in” to what Butler is teaching.
The Pro Bowler stressed he wasn’t calling out anyone specifically, but believes a little accountability would go a long way.
“This team, this defense isn’t about one guy making a play,” Heyward said. “If I never get a sack again but all my guys get one-on-ones and they dominate, I don’t give a damn (if I get a sack). I’m still doing my job. I’m buying into this team. Everybody has to sacrifice a little bit for us to be successful.”
Heyward has already made one sacrifice: trading his bushy hairdo for a buzz cut before facing Tampa Bay last month.
“I’m luck driven … when I’m not winning I feel like I’ve got to come and switch things up,” Heyward said. “I told my wife ‘I’ve got to cut it. It’s not bringing us luck.'”
The Steelers responded by producing four first-half turnovers against the Buccaneers while picking up their first — and still only — win of the season. The momentum lasted all of six days. Who knows? Maybe Heyward will make a run at his beard before taking the field against the Falcons, though he’s well aware a razor can’t solve everything.
“You keep moving on,” Heyward said. “Obviously we don’t have the greatest record in the world, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. We’ve got 12 games to prove we deserve more than that.”
And prove last year’s franchise-record and NFL-high 57 sacks were not a fluke. While the Steelers have a respectable 13 sacks through four games, seven of them came against Cleveland in the opener. They only took down Flacco twice in 44 drop backs last week and Ryan isn’t exactly one to flinch in the face of pressure.
“We played him four years ago, we blitzed the stew out of him back then,” Butler said. “He’s seen all the blitzes. He’s not going to be fooled.”
Meaning the secondary will need to find a way to iron out the busted coverages and blown opportunities that have become a staple of film review.
The return of nickelback Mike Hilton from an elbow injury that kept him out against Baltimore could help, though Morgan Burnett could miss his third straight game with a groin problem. Inside linebacker Vince Williams did not practice Thursday because of a hamstring issue, meaning someone else will likely be wearing the green dot that relays the call to the defense on Sunday against Atlanta.
All that shuffling in and out hasn’t exactly helped the Steelers develop a sense of continuity. Not that they’re in the mood to make excuses.
“We’ve got to fix our mistakes on the go,” said rookie safety Terrell Edmunds. “Sometimes it’s a 50/50 ball we got to make. Sometimes we make them. Sometimes we don’t. We’ve just got to get everything down.”
And do it in a hurry.