MEADOWLANDS, N.J. – Over the past decade or so, there have been a few constants in the NFL when it comes to defense.
The ones directed by Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan are usually two of the better units in the league.
Right now, only one of those two is holding up his end of the bargain.
While the Jets have the NFL’s second-rated defense, allowing 299 yards per game, the Steelers are well down in the pack, ranked 10th.
“At the end of the day, your good teams – you look at Pittsburgh with Dick LeBeau (and) you know what his team is going to be,” said Ryan, whose Jets (3-2) host the Steelers (0-4) today.
“It’s the same with us. We know we’re going to end up first, second or third in the league every year. That’s the way it is with a Dick LeBeau defense.”
That might be the case, but right now, LeBeau and the Steelers might not care if they were ranked last in the league if they could trade it for some turnovers and wins.
Pittsburgh has yet to force a turnover in its first four games, while New York has forced just three. Those numbers could change today against each other. The Jets have turned the ball over 12 times already this season, while the Steelers have 11 turnovers on offense.
Coming out of a bye week, the Steelers’ coaching staff emphasized both protecting the football better and coming up with ways to force opponents to cough it up.
“We have to do a better job of preserving the ball,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. “We worked hard at that over the past week, and obviously getting the ball. We’ve yet to get a turnover.”
Tomlin used the bye week to make a number of changes in his lineup. Cameron Heyward will start at defensive end in place of Ziggy Hood. William Gay will start at cornerback in place of Cortez Allen, though Allen will still play on passing downs. Mike Adams is out at left tackle, and either Kelvin Beachum or newly acquired Levi Brown getting the start in his place.
Cornerback Ike Taylor, who was taken out of the starting lineup by former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher in 2006, said a benching can be a good thing depending how a player handles it.
“I kept fighting. I didn’t let it deter me,” Taylor said. “I understood what he told me. I didn’t pout about it or complain. That’s what they want to see. I tell all the guys who got sat down, ‘I went through it. But I’m still here.’ Coaches don’t want to hear you complain. One thing you don’t want to do is change your attitude or demeanor.”
That’s been the message many of Pittsburgh’s veterans have tried to convey to the team’s young players throughout what has been a difficult start.
“You always stay focused,” said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. “You always think you’re in every game and every season until the end.”
For the Steelers to stay in this season, they’ll have to avoid an 0-5 start.
They do have a bit of history on their side. Pittsburgh is 15-2 against rookie quarterbacks with LeBeau as its defensive coordinator.
Rookie Geno Smith, a former West Virginia star, has thrown seven touchdowns and eight interceptions for the Jets and will be without top wideout Santonio Holmes and tight end Kellen Winslow. Holmes has a hamstring injury and Winslow was suspended by the NFL Friday for use of performance enhancing drugs.
“We are trying to regroup a little bit, and focus on where we need to be and what we need to get done,” said LeBeau of the Pittsburgh defense, which is coming off a tough outing in a 34-27 loss to Minnesota in London. “I think the guys have done a good job of that. We are all very anxious, and I am looking forward to seeing us play.”
Odds and end zones
Steelers tight end Heath Miller needs one touchdown catch to become the fifth player in team history with 40 touchdown receptions. … Roethlisberger enters the game with 196 touchdown passes. Only Terry Bradshaw (212) has more than 200 with the Steelers. … Linebacker LaMarr Woodley has three of Pittsburgh’s four sacks this season.