Steelers' goal: cut off Titans at pass

Pittsburgh's secondary hurt by injuries, big plays

January 09, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Because of their secondary, the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense is looking more like a veiled threat than a steel curtain.

Thin and repeatedly ripped apart, Pittsburgh's pass defense now will fall into the crosshairs of Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair in Saturday's AFC divisional playoff game.

Injuries have made the defensive backs vulnerable. Surrendering big plays have made them highly visible.

The league's 20th-ranked pass defense has been exposed the past two weeks with Ravens journeyman quarterback Jeff Blake throwing for 336 yards and Cleveland Browns backup Kelly Holcomb racking up 429 yards. But the possible return of cornerback Chad Scott could be happening at the right time.

Based on their recent troubles and past history with Tennessee, the Steelers expect their secondary to again be tested. In a 31-23 win over Pittsburgh two months ago, the Titans frequently went with an empty backfield formation - splitting out players like tight end Frank Wycheck and running back Eddie George - that created mismatches, helping McNair throw for 257 yards and two touchdowns.

"I can't imagine them deviating too far from it based on the success they had and the success that Cleveland had last week," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "I still think that they are going to try to run the ball. Of course, I thought Cleveland was going to try to run the ball, too."

The Browns capitalized on the absence of Scott (broken thumb) by going to three- and four-wide receiver formations more than half the time.

Pittsburgh gave up 12 pass plays covering 15 yards or more and allowed touchdown throws of 32, 15 and 22 yards. Cleveland's 429 passing yards were 1 yard shy of the all-time record against the Steelers.

"I was saying, `Somebody please stop the bleeding,' " safety Lee Flowers said.

That somebody could be Scott, who returned to practice yesterday. The former University of Maryland standout likely will have to play with a cast on his hand after two pins were put into his thumb.

"I'm going to play," Scott said. "That's how I feel. Nobody wants to play more than me. I wish I could have played in the Cleveland game. Unfortunately I wasn't able to; there was too much pain at that point in time.

"It was rough [not playing]. To play all year and get to the playoffs, wanting to make a Super Bowl run, and I wasn't able to play. I look forward to playing this week."

Besides Scott, linebacker Kendrell Bell (sprained ankle) is questionable and safety Mike Logan (knee surgery) is out for the rest of the postseason.

But the biggest concern is Scott, who has missed the past two weeks. Without him in the lineup, the Ravens and Browns averaged 17 yards per completion.

"He took a few more reps than I thought he was going to," Cowher said. "He looked OK. I think at this point you realize there is no tomorrow. He wanted to be out there last week. We'll see how the week goes and we'll go from there."

If Scott can't play, the Steelers will tap further into their depleted roster for players to man their dime defense than they have all season. Scott and Logan regularly play in the dime, which uses six men in the secondary.

Hank Poteat, who was beaten consistently in the wild-card game, already has been forced into action, and Chidi Iwuoma or Chris Hope would be next in line. Another option would be staying with their nickel package, keeping Bell on the field and going with five defensive backs. But then, Bell is banged up as well.

If injuries continue to mount, Cowher said he wouldn't rule out using one of his receivers in the secondary.

"I don't know if I would have Plaxico Burress bump-and-running," Cowher said. "Maybe Antwaan Randle El could do that."

Tennessee, though, may be hard-pressed to repeat its earlier success.

Receiver Kevin Dyson, who caught eight passes for 87 yards and two touchdowns against the Steelers on Nov. 17, is on injured reserve with a torn hamstring.

With Pittsburgh figuring to throw most of its attention on Wycheck and Derrick Mason, little-known receivers Drew Bennett and Justin McCareins figure to become pivotal players Saturday. Bennett is a more polished receiver and McCareins has more speed.

"I think that's something that we're going to miss," McNair said. "But other guys have to step up."

McNair, the 11th-rated passer in the league, threw for 3,387 yards and 22 touchdowns in the regular season. Beyond the statistics, McNair is big and strong enough to shake off tackles in the pocket, buying more time to throw deep or scramble downfield.

"It is going to come down to us trying to eliminate the big plays," Cowher said. "I am sure they are going to test on the outside as a lot of people have. We are going to have to stop the running game and try to contain McNair. Those are the challenges that will be presented to our defense, and have a lot to do with the success we end with when the game is all said and done."

NFL playoffs

Saturday's games

Pittsburgh (11-5-1) at Tennessee (11-5), 4:30 p.m. TV: 13, 9. Line: Tenn. by 4.

Atlanta (10-6-1) at Philadelphia (12-4), 8 p.m. TV: 45, 5. Line: Phila. by 7 1/2 . Sunday's games

San Francisco (11-6) at Tampa Bay (12-4), 1 p.m. TV: 45, 5. Line: Tampa by 5.

N.Y. Jets (10-7) at Oakland (11-5), 4:30 p.m. TV: 13, 9. Line: Oak. by 5 1/2 .

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