By Matt Pawlikowski
Certain moments define a season. For the Steelers, without a doubt the second half of the game against Oakland was that moment — at least thus far.
When a head coach decides to have his offense go for it on a fourth-and-one play within chip shot field goal range, it says it all. Confidence is lacking in his defensive squad.
Once the most feared unit in the NFL, the Raiders made the Pittsburgh defense look like a pop Warner team by scoring with ease on five consecutive possessions.
On two occasions this season, elite quarterbacks were able to make adjustments and shred the Pittsburgh defense, with a big reason for this being a lack of pressure and predictability.
Both Oakland’s Carson Palmer and Denver’s Peyton Manning admitted afterward they knew what Pittsburgh was doing. Through three games the secondary has just one interception and the unit has just five sacks.
But don’t call it a demise just yet. Through three games, the team ranks seventh in yards allowed per game, and while both Manning and Palmer had field days, the team still ranks fifth in passing yards allowed, just 191 per game.
Pittsburgh has started the season many others times at 1-2, but just once since 1992 when they have done so has the team posted a better record than 9-7.
While the defensive collapse in two of its first three games has been unprecedented by a Dick LeBeau-coached squad, there have been many positives in the Steel City.
Todd Haley’s pick as offensive coordinator came under media and fan scrutiny. In three games the Steelers have dominated time of possession and have spread the ball out well.
Tight end Heath Miller has four touchdown receptions, and is tied with San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis for best in the league. He is on pace to eclipse his single season best of 76 receptions with 80 and also on pace to score 21 touchdowns. The team record is 12, held by three players, the last being wide receiver Hines Ward.
Linebacker Larry Foote was brought back to help provide leadership in the Steelers lockeroom. With veteran linebacker James Farrior gone, Foote without a doubt has been the defensive MVP to this point. Through three games, he leads the team with 23 tackles, one forced fumble and also has a sack.
Drew Butler’s stats as a punter, just over 41 yards per punt, aren’t the greatest, but this stat stands out: Five of his 11 punts have been inside the 20-yard line and returns on them have been just over five yards.
Linebacker James Harrison tweeted on Tuesday that he did his first full practice of the year. Also, safety Troy Polamalu practiced and said he would be back to play in the Oct. 7 game against the Eagles. Both of their returns can’t come soon enough, but will they be enough.
Players to watch after the bye
Steve McClendon: He drew praise for his play in the pre-season but has been an afterthought in the regular season. Sunday against the Raiders he played in just three series. Considering the Steelers’ problems getting pressure on the quarterback from its front seven, McClendon needs to step his game up.
Lawrence Timmons: While the Steeler linebacker has 11 tackles, he has pretty much been invisible on the field this season. Timmons needs to step his game up a notch, especially if Harrison is AWOL into October.
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Matt Pawlikowski is a veteran journalist covering all things Steelers. His work can be found on Examiner.com.