F. Dale Lolley's Sports Column

As schedule softens, defense must carry load

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PITTSBURGH – Much maligned in the first four games this season, the Steelers’ defense has started to find its groove over the past month.

It’s a good thing, too, because with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger out of action for at least another week, the Steelers are going to need something extra if they want to stay in playoff contention.

Actually, because of the overall ineptness of the AFC, the Steelers have quite a bit of cushion – after all, there are only six teams with records above .500.

But as we saw Sunday night against the Baltimore Ravens – and who didn’t expect this? – the offense just isn’t the same without Roethlisberger.

The reason is simple. In addition to being one of the top quarterbacks in the league, Roethlisberger has been the best in the league on third downs this year, compiling a passer rating of 117.2 on that critical down.

By comparison, Roethlisberger’s overall passer rating is 100, still good, but not the lofty total he has put together on third downs.

His outstanding play on third down was a big reason why the Steelers entered the weekend leading the league in that statistic. It also was the driving force behind Pittsburgh’s excellent advantage in time of possession – the Steelers possessed the ball for an average of more than 34 minutes per game through 10 weeks.

Without Roethlisberger – and perhaps just as important, wide receiver Antonio Brown – the Steelers not only didn’t convert many third downs against Baltimore, they also failed to capitalize on the momentum of backup quarterback Byron Leftwich’s improbable 31-yard touchdown run on their opening possession.

Add in a couple of critical miscues – a fumble deep in their own territory by wide receiver Mike Wallace and a punt return for a touchdown by Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones – and it’s not hard to see why the Steelers found themselves in a dogfight with the Ravens despite playing outstanding defense.

Without Roethlisberger, the Steelers don’t have to play error-free football, but they can’t give up easy points to the opposition, either.

The remainder of Pittsburgh’s schedule has only one team – Baltimore in a rematch Dec. 2 – that currently sports a winning record. Dallas and Cincinnati are each 5-5, while San Diego and Cleveland – the Browns play the Steelers twice, including next week – are a combined 6-14.

The Steelers get the struggling Browns next week in Cleveland, and if the defense can continue to play as well as it has recently, then Pittsburgh should win.

Brown, who has missed the past two games with a sprained ankle, should be back in the lineup at Cleveland. And Roethlisberger return for the Steelers’ rematch against the Ravens, though it’s more likely he comes back a week later at home against San Diego.

The Steelers haven’t played many important games against Cleveland since the Browns came back to the NFL in 1999. But next week’s game is as big as any the two have played in recent years. Pittsburgh can’t afford any letdowns at this point, even against a Cleveland team they have dominated.

Given that the Steelers know the direness of the situation, there is no reason to think they will have any trouble.

F. Dale Lolley can be reached at dlolley@observer-reporter.com

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