PITTSBURGH — Ryan Clark is familiar with the drill.
Every time the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t look like the best defense in football, a rarity for a unit that has finished No. 1 in the NFL five times in the last decade, the whispers the NFL has passed by 76-year-old defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau morph into throaty roars.
The din only grew louder last weekend, when Pittsburgh surrendered a franchise-record 55 points and 610 yards in a loss to New England. Suddenly, a slow start in which the Steelers struggled to do the things that have been their trademark under LeBeau — namely stopping the run and limiting big plays — began to look like something far more troubling.
Clark’s message? Save it. It was one game. A bad one, to be sure. But just one. And while there are plenty of issues to address as Pittsburgh (2-6) tries to snap out of an overall funk that dates nearly a year, LeBeau’s ability is not among them.
“He’s a Hall of Famer, more so than a football coach, as a person,” Clark said. “What people say about him in the media, outside our locker room, doesn’t matter. We’re going to keep on lifting him up. We’re going to keep respecting him and keep doing our best to keep playing for him.”
LeBeau appreciates the sentiment but is far more diplomatic. While he could point out the Steelers remain a respectable 12th in total defense heading into Sunday’s game against Buffalo (3-6) or how they shut down Baltimore and the New York Jets in consecutive wins last month, that’s not his way.
Pittsburgh was a step slow, sometimes more, against New England. It’s LeBeau’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“We’ve got to make sure that we get back to our fundamentals,” LeBeau said. “We’ve gotten away from those too far, that’s on me.”
LeBeau and the rest of the coaching staff went back to “Page 1” this week in hopes of finding a spark that’s been missing much of the season. Pittsburgh is 29th in the NFL in sacks (13) and takeaways (six). The lack of splash plays has forced the Steelers’ offense to drive the length of the field to score. A tipped pass that turns into an interception here or a big stop there could go a long way to helping Pittsburgh recover from its horrific start.
Problem is, the players charged with causing havoc have looked mortal.
Rookie outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, taken almost exclusively for his ability to get into the backfield, has been unable to find consistent playing time. While safety Troy Polamalu is healthy, the 32-year-old also looks at times like 10 seasons of frenetic play is starting to take its toll.
Time and again last weekend Polamalu and Clark found themselves fruitlessly chasing Patriots into the end zone then trudging back to the bench to explain to LeBeau or secondary coach Carnell Lake what went wrong.
The mistakes were made on the field, Polamalu said, not in practice or in meeting rooms, the place where LeBeau is equal parts teacher, father figure and mentor.
“I know where the breakdowns were and they had nothing to do with schematics,” Polamalu said.
Polamalu, perhaps more than any other player in the NFL, is given the green light to freelance and use his instincts to disrupt opposing offenses. Tom Brady used the future Hall of Famer’s aggressiveness to New England’s advantage, often looking one way after taking the snap only to turn and throw the ball the other direction.
The split-second delay in Polamalu’s reaction allowed Rob Gronkowski to get free for a second-quarter score. Polamalu arrived a half-step late and could only deal Gronkowski a glancing blow as the tight end tumbled across the goal line.
Yet LeBeau’s decision to get back to basics does not mean he plans on stripping Polamalu of the creativity he needs to be a difference maker. That’s fine by Clark, who is often left to clean up the mess if things go awry.
“Troy is allowed to do what he does because he’s special,” Clark said. “You’ve got to allow special players the freedom to be special or you waste them. Making Troy do whatever the little dot says in the book, that would be ridiculous. That would waste his special talent.
Clark might as well be talking about LeBeau, who has spent the last 54 years on an NFL sideline. Last week wasn’t the first time one of LeBeau’s teams has been steamrolled. It might not be the last either. When it happens, you move forward and keep working.
“We play bad and we all have a bad game,” LeBeau said. “I certainly take my full ownership to that. We’re not going to duck our head. We’re not going to tuck our tail. This is a league of competitors. We’re going to go out and compete.”
NOTES: Steelers CB Ike Taylor (concussion) returned to practice on Wednesday and should play on Sunday against the Bills. ... T Marcus Gilbert (ankle), T Kelvin Beachum (knee) and LB Vince Williams (concussion) were limited. ... LB Sean Spence, placed on the IR for the second straight season with a left knee injury said he was “disappointed” to not make it back this season but vowed to return in 2014.
PITTSBURGH — Ryan Clark is familiar with the drill.
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