Big-name QBs get little help on 'D'

Roethlisberger, Brady and Eli are doing their parts

December 20, 2009|By Sam Farmer Inside the NFL

Ben Roethlisberger's numbers are up across the board, and he's completing a career-best 68.3 percent of his passes … but the Steelers have lost five in a row and essentially have bumbled their way out of playoff contention.

Tom Brady directs the AFC's top-ranked offense, and he ranks near the top in most positive statistical categories … but the Patriots have lost three of their last five games.

Eli Manning is on pace for his first 4,000-yard passing season and is coming off a career-best 391-yard game … but the Giants have lost six of eight and no longer control their postseason destiny.

There are two things to note in all of this:

The mighty have fallen ... or at least have taken a big step back.

Don't blame the offense.

The Patriots, Steelers or Giants have been in seven of the last nine Super Bowls, winning all but one. This season, however, each is faced with serious defensive problems.

That's not to say the offenses have been ideal. But the defensive breakdowns, particularly in the passing game, have been the undoing for these teams - even if the statistics don't reflect it. They're all ranked among the top 11 defenses.

Here's a look at what has gone wrong:

Giants: New York built a 5-0 record mostly on fluff teams - those opponents are now a combined 20-45 - and what was supposed to be one of the league's best pass rushes got an unrealistic view of what it could do.

Sure, the Giants had five sacks against the Chiefs and six against the Raiders, but they have just 12 in the last eight games.

The players up front aren't getting to quarterbacks, and that puts additional pressure on a secondary that hasn't been able to recover from the Week 3 loss of safety Kenny Phillips, a rising star. There are no playmakers in that secondary, and the communication breakdowns are constant.

Patriots: Although they're still atop the AFC East, the Patriots have yet to show they can win close games the way they have so routinely in the Brady era. It doesn't help that they've lost so many veteran leaders on defense - Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison - and linebacker Jerod Mayo (last season's defensive rookie of the year) hasn't returned to form since suffering a knee injury in Week 1.

A turning point came when Bill Belichick decided to go for it on fourth down in Indianapolis when the Patriots were protecting a lead deep in their territory. After the Colts won, Belichick came under fire for not having faith in his defense.

Then again, after the way the Patriots' defense played in a 38-17 loss in New Orleans, can anyone blame him?

A glaring weakness has been New England's inability to generate a pass rush. Free agent linebacker Derrick Burgess has been a big disappointment; his three sacks are one more than rookie safety Patrick Chung. Jarvis Green, Seymour's longtime backup, got his first sack of the season last week.

As is the case with the Giants, there have been frequent communication breakdowns in the secondary - so much so that Belichick has simplified the system to avoid a complete coverage meltdown.

Steelers: The No. 1 mantra of defensive guru Dick LeBeau is "Don't give up the big play." For years, the Steelers have adhered to that. Not this season. The franchise that led the NFL a year ago by allowing just two completions longer than 40 yards has given up seven this season, five during the current losing streak.

Pittsburgh is getting decent pass pressure - though surprisingly little from star linebacker James Harrison lately - but has suffered all sorts of short-circuits in communication.

Clearly, losing All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu was a crippling blow, and no one has stepped into that playmaking void.

It's unimaginable that the Steelers would give up three fourth-quarter touchdowns to the Raiders at home. But they did. And four days later, the defending Super Bowl champions lost at Cleveland, looking completely deflated, disinterested, disoriented and defeated.

So many D's. So little "D."

Sam Farmer covers the NFL for the Los Angeles Times. sfarmer@tribune.com

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