By Dejan Kovacevic, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Friday, October 7, 2011
James Harrison is so tough, he returned to the field minutes after his eye socket was broken by a helmet-to-helmet shot Sunday in Houston.
Take that, Chuck Norris.
Harrison is so tough that, shortly after surgery to repair the socket Tuesday, he sat up in his hospital bed to upload pictures of his bandaged eye to Twitter and Facebook.
"I look like a pirate!" he cracked, as if his face had hurt the scalpel more than vice versa.
But that's only part of what the Steelers will be without when their all-universe linebacker misses the next month to ... well, not recover but reload, I guess. They'll also be missing the man responsible for 100 percent of the team's defensive takeaways this season.
Yeah, that one.
It came Sept. 25, late in the 23-20 victory in Indianapolis. Harrison burst through the Colts' line and jarred the ball loose from quarterback Curtis Painter. Troy Polamalu scooped it up to score a touchdown.
And that's it for takeaways at the season's quarter point. Just that one out of 247 offensive plays for the opponent. There have been no other forced fumbles, no interceptions -- the Steelers are the only team with that distinction -- and there hasn't even been a random unforced error.
It's astounding, really, because this is a defense built far more on being a predator than preventing.
It's a defense that highlights Harrison, Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and others with a pedigree for finding the football. The 11 regulars have, among them, 90 career interceptions and 72 forced fumbles.
It's a defense that only last year had 35 takeaways for a plus-17 turnover differential that ranked second in the NFL. Now, they're dead last at minus-10.
It's a defense that needs to get its act together, beginning Sunday against Tennessee.
One problem, though ...
"We've had too many one-on-one opportunities where we haven't been corralling the opponent to the ground, let alone stripping the ball," safety Ryan Clark told me a couple days ago on the South Side. "It's not like we're not thinking about taking the ball, but that's got to come first."
He's right, of course. If the Steelers aren't stopping the run (they aren't) and they aren't getting to the quarterback (still running up the roaming charges there), then they aren't forcing that quarterback into deep drops. Those drops are what give the pass rushers time for the big hits that pop the ball loose. And those rushes are what force the quarterback into bad throws.
As Clark put it, "You have to put the other team in position to make bad plays."
As opposed to doing that to your own offense. Consider that the Steelers have begun just two of their 44 offensive drives in enemy territory, and both came as the result of long Antonio Brown punt returns. Or that their six touchdowns required drives of 60, 53, 86, 73, 86 and 79 yards. Or that they've produced touchdowns on 13 percent of all drives, well below the league average of 19 percent.
The solution starts up front.
I hate to keep picking on the defensive line, as there's enough blame to spread across everyone on the 53-man roster except maybe wide receiver Mike Wallace, cornerback Ike Taylor and punter Daniel Sepulveda. But if the line doesn't close running gaps, doesn't free up the linebackers to rush, doesn't deflect passes -- not one ball has been tipped at the line all season -- this will continue indefinitely.
Aaron Smith has played miles below the exceptional standard he set, but he's not alone. The other veterans, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel, haven't gotten it done, either. The younger guys, Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward, have been OK.
To get better, they'll have to take a page from the Pop Warner manual.
"We've got to make the tackle," Hood said. "That's all. Just be in our gaps and tackle. We know what to do. There's no special secret. If you don't secure your tackle, you don't have a chance at a takeaway."
And if you don't have takeaways, you don't have much of a chance.